Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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5 links: January 11, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

A fleet of small planes services illegal gold mining in and around Indigenous lands in Roraima, Brazil. The difficulty of stopping the flights points to the complexity of fighting organized crime when it’s totally encrusted within “legitimate/legal” local elites—something we see a lot in Colombia, too.

Colombia

In places where everyone has had to coexist with guerrillas for decades—like Arauca, Colombia—civil-society organizations (as well as politicians)) have to maintain some ties. But prosecuting civil society leaders on weak evidence is one of the stupidest ways to try to weaken an insurgency: it stigmatizes vulnerable activists, barely affects the violent group’s strength, and multiplies locals’ distrust in the state.

Guatemala

Good overview of a case that’s finally before Guatemala’s courts: the military’s systematic rape, together with paramilitaries, of dozens of indigenous women in Baja Verapaz in the early 1980s. It’s taken nearly 40 years to get even this amount of justice.

Haiti

“New evidence suggests the man who took over from Haiti’s murdered president had close links to a prime suspect in the assassination — and that the two stayed in contact even after the crime.”

Mexico

Along with hundreds of thousands of migrants, a lot of northbound drugs pass through Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It’s kind of remarkable that Chiapas remained violence-free for as long as it has. That’s ending: organized-crime violence is rising fast. Among recent cases is the October murder of journalist Fredy López Arévalo in San Cristobal de las Casas, a charming tourist destination.

5 links: January 10, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

Even if Bolsonaro loses in October, the damage he has done to civil-military relations in Brazil, where most military personnel have very hard-right political views, will take many years to undo.

Colombia

The post-accord fragmentation of armed actors in Colombia “began to diminish” in 2021.

Nicaragua

As Daniel Ortega swears himself in for another term as president, some of his most prominent political opponents are in the El Chipote prison where, according to reports from relatives who have managed to visit them very sporadically, they are suffering from malnutrition, mistreatment and barely have access to their lawyers.”

U.S.-Mexico Border

Border Patrol insists on carrying high-speed vehicle chases with a degree of recklessness that most police departments would avoid. Then it sends out its shady “Critical Incident Teams” whose purpose appears to be to help the agents involved avoid accountability.

This is infuriating. “Though Biden administration officials promised access to counsel, the two Colombian men were not allowed to speak with attorneys while in U.S. custody. Officials also failed to vaccinate one of the men for COVID-19. Confused and terrified, the two men found themselves back in Tijuana with the extra stigma of being the first returnees.”

Latin America-related online events this week

Monday, January 10

  • 3:30-4:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Latin America’s Lithium and the Future of Renewable Energy in the United States (RSVP required).
  • 4:00-5:00 at csis.org: Road to the 2022 Summit of the Americas: Trade and Investment (RSVP required).

Tuesday, January 11

  • 11:00-12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: The Alliance for Development in Democracy: A Conversation with Three Foreign Ministers (RSVP required).

Wednesday, January 12

  • 10:00-11:15 at thedialogue.org: Nicaragua 2022 – Is a Political Transition Possible? (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-4:30 at csis.org: Assessing the Impact of Artisanal and Small-Scale and Illegal Mining in the Amazon (RSVP required).

Thursday, January 13

Weekly Border Update: January 7, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Remain in Mexico has been applied to nearly 250 people

As of Tuesday January 4, the Biden administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program had sent 217 asylum-seeking migrants back into Mexico to await their first U.S. immigration court hearings. The program, also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), had been applied to 135 citizens of Nicaragua (62 percent), 46 Venezuelans, 16 Cubans, 13 Ecuadorians, and 7 Colombians.

By January 5 a source at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Mexico’s Aristegui Noticias that 224 men had been sent back across the border since December 8, when the court-ordered revival of the Trump-era program began. In some of these cases, rights advocates have observed a failure to take steps that the Biden administration had promised to implement in order to make RMX more humane.

As explained in past updates, Remain in Mexico was a Trump administration initiative that sent 71,071 asylum seekers with U.S. cases into Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most were sent across before March 2020, when the “Title 42” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible by quickly expelling as many migrants as possible.

At least 1,500 asylum seekers suffered violent attacks after being made to remain in Mexico, according to information compiled by Human Rights First. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021, bringing more than 10,000 asylum seekers to await their hearings on U.S. soil. A lawsuit from the 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.

Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continued.

Title 42, which expels undocumented migrants without affording them a chance to request protection in the United States, is applied heavily to citizens of Mexico, and to citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, whose expulsions Mexico agreed to receive in March 2020. Citizens of other, more distant countries are harder to expel quickly, though (as discussed below) the Biden administration is implementing a large-scale airlift of expelled Haitian migrants.

If they are from the Western Hemisphere, asylum seekers from those “other” countries—who, including Haiti, made up 30 percent of all encountered migrants in November—are now increasingly likely to find themselves subject to Remain in Mexico. Not a single citizen of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras has ended up in the revived program yet. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to use Title 42 for people from those countries, which means that they (along with Mexicans) do not even get asylum cases or hearing dates in the U.S. immigration system.

It is notable that the top three nationalities to which “Remain in Mexico” has so far been applied—Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba—are undemocratic states whose human rights record the U.S. government forcefully criticizes. They are also countries less likely to accept expulsion or deportation flights—though as noted below, 18 flights landed in Nicaragua last year.

The new Remain in Mexico began December 8 in El Paso; on January 5 it expanded to San Diego, where two Colombian men became the first people sent across to await their U.S. hearings in Tijuana. There, IOM staff tested them for COVID-19, gave them information about what to expect in the RMX process, and took them to a shelter.

A U.S. Embassy representative told Tijuana shelter operators and migrant advocates that Remain in Mexico would steadily expand to a maximum of 30 people per day in Tijuana. The Biden administration plans to implement the program at seven ports of entry (San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas). If it applied Remain in Mexico to that full complement of 30 people per day per port of entry, 6,300 people could be sent into Mexican border towns each month. The Trump administration only exceeded that monthly total three times during the earlier incarnation of RMX.

That many new returnees, along with regular deportations and an increasing number of migrants arriving from Haiti and elsewhere, will strain shelters and other humanitarian efforts in Tijuana, Father Patrick Murphy, who runs Tijuana’s Casa de Migrante shelter, told Border Report. “Tijuana is going to be in a difficult position with this constant migration and we haven’t seen much of a response from our government, there’s no help, and they won’t talk to us or take our input.”

The U.S. government has reportedly pledged to provide funding that would benefit shelters receiving RMX participants in Mexican border towns, but where that stands is not clear. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) referred San Diego Union-Tribune inquiries about funding to the Department of State, which did not respond.

In El Paso, the first hearings took place on January 3 for asylum seekers who had been sent across the border into Ciudad Juárez in December. Thirty-six people reported to the port of entry, some at 4:30 AM, and were brought to the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso.

The Biden administration had promised that migrants would have greater access to legal representation in the rebooted program; during the Trump-era program, only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had lawyers. The situation so far is unchanged: only five of eighty-two asylum seekers brought to El Paso on January 3 and 4 had attorneys present, according to Yael Schacher of Refugees International, who observed the proceedings.

Observers’ access to the courtrooms was also spotty: reporter René Kladzyk of El Paso Matters was barred from attending hearings even though a Department of Justice fact sheet reads, “when court space is limited, media representatives have priority over the general public.” An official cited COVID-19 capacity limitations.

Human Rights First researchers noted other inconsistencies with the Biden administration’s promises of a more humane Remain in Mexico program. Some of the first returnees to Ciudad Juárez said they were not asked required medical screening questions that might exempt people with some conditions from being sent back: DHS personnel had simply checked “no” on a form’s list of medical conditions. Every person Human Rights First staff interviewed upon return to Juárez reported suffering harm in Mexico, including kidnappings, or violence from police or other officials—but they were sent back to Mexico anyway. The Border Project, a legal watchdog group, identified 24 returnees whom it determined should have been exempted from RMX for medical reasons.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, “When asked about this issue in a press call on Monday [January 3], administration officials said that asylum seekers in the program can go to ports of entry or reach out to U.S. officials via email if they feel they’ve been incorrectly placed into the program or if their situations have changed.”

The Biden administration continues to insist that it opposes the renewed program, even as it expands it. On December 29 the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the lawsuit brought by the Texas and Missouri attorneys general, which had forced the program’s restart, urging it to hold oral arguments in April. It is far from certain that the conservative Supreme Court would find in the Biden administration’s favor.

Meanwhile, proponents of Remain in Mexico are arguing that the administration is not moving to restore the program as quickly as the court order requires. Former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller published a tweet lamenting that Remain in Mexico has been applied to “about 200” single adult men so far “out of the many 100’s of thousands flooding across unimpeded,” claiming that “Biden is violating a fed court injunction.”

Migrant removal flights increased from 2020 to 2021

Guatemala City’s first U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractor flights of the year landed on January 4, one from McAllen, Texas and one from nearby Harlingen, Texas. They discharged 251 deported or expelled Guatemalan citizens, 67 of them children. This continues the pace of removal flights set in 2021, according to Guatemalan authorities who counted 184 flights last year discharging 17,806 migrants. Many of those migrants—we don’t have an exact amount—were detained at the border and expelled under Title 42; others were detained by ICE in the U.S. interior. Last year, Mexican authorities deported another 45,498 people to Guatemala, 4,775 by air and the rest on 1,195 buses.

What a new report from Witness at the Border calls “the largest mass deportation campaign in 5 decades” continues in Haiti. As of the morning of January 7, the Biden administration had sent 162 planeloads of Haitian citizens back to Port-au-Prince or Cap-Haïtien, returning about 16,300 people in less than a year. Most are Title 42 expulsions. (In 2020, the Trump administration operated 37 ICE removal flights to Haiti, according to Witness at the Border, which monitors likely ICE fights.) About 126 of those flights have occurred since September 19, 2021, after thousands of Haitian citizens arrived en masse in the border town of Del Rio, Texas.

Overall, Witness at the Border found an increase in migrant removal flights from the Trump administration’s final year to the Biden administration’s first year. 975 flights operated between February and December 2021 (discarding January 2021, which was split between the two presidents). This is up 6 percent from 917 flights between February and December 2020.

Among other interesting findings in the organization’s year-end report:

  • Removal flights going directly to El Salvador (-21 percent), Guatemala (-26 percent), and Honduras (-26 percent) decreased from 2020 to 2021. However, “this decrease of 135 flights was more than offset by the 143 flights to Villahermosa and Tapachula [southern Mexico] that resulted in chain expulsions of an estimated over 14,000 people, primarily Guatemalans and Hondurans, expelled first by US to southern Mexico by air, and then expelled by Mexico by land to Guatemala. In neither case were these people afforded their legal right to assert their rights to seek protection.”
  • One or two flights per month removed people to Nicaragua, despite the deteriorating political and human rights situation and a poor bilateral relationship. Flights continued even after Nicaragua’s illegitimate November 7 elections: two in November, two in December, and eighteen in the year, similar to the nineteen that operated in 2020.
  • The 19 destinations with more than 1 removal flight in 2021 were Guatemala City, Guatemala (184); all of Honduras (149); Port-au-Prince, Haiti (132); Villahermosa, Mexico (112); San Salvador, El Salvador (90); Ecuador (72); Tapachula, Mexico (56); Guadalajara, Mexico (52); Mexico City, Mexico (49); Morelia, Mexico (23); Cap-Haïtien, Haiti (22); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (21); all of Brazil (21); Managua, Nicaragua (18); Querétaro, Mexico (16); Bogotá, Colombia (12); Kingston, Jamaica (12); Puebla, Mexico (7); and Piarco, Trinidad (3).

Asylum claims in Mexico

Mexico’s small refugee agency, COMAR, reported a record-smashing number of migrants requesting asylum in the country in 2021. The 131,448 applications last year exceeded COMAR’s previous high (70,351 in 2019) by 87 percent. It is more than 100 times the number of people who sought asylum in Mexico as recently as 2013.

For the first time, Haiti led the list of nationalities of asylum seekers in Mexico, with 51,827. Another 6,970 people listed as from Chile and 3,836 from Brazil are also mostly of Haitian descent: many are children of Haitian migrants who first emigrated to those countries. Honduras, with 36,361 applicants, was in second place—though the number of Honduran asylum seekers exceeds 2019’s record.

While the U.S. government continues Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants, Mexico (without even counting those listed as Chilean or Brazilian) has considered asylum requests from 837 percent more Haitians in 2021 than in 2019. Working with the UN Refugee Agency, COMAR has launched a pilot program to provide 200 Haitian asylum applicants with temporary visas allowing them to work while awaiting decisions on their cases. Mexico’s largest convenience store chain, Oxxo, also announced its intention to hire Haitians.

The busiest COMAR office continues to be the one in Mexico’s southern border city of Tapachula, Chiapas. In this city of about 350,000 people, 89,688 migrants applied for asylum last year: 68 percent of all of Mexico’s 2021 asylum requests. Tapachula was followed by COMAR’s offices in Mexico City (18,959); Tenosique, Tabasco (7,161); Acayucan, Veracruz (5,809); Palenque, Chiapas (5,696); and Tijuana, Baja California (4,135).

Of the 37,806 asylum decisions that COMAR issued in 2021, 72 percent were grants of asylum and 2 percent were grants of “complementary protection.” The other 26 percent of applications were denied. Adding asylum and complementary protection, COMAR approved 97 percent of Venezuelans, 85 percent of Hondurans and Salvadorans; 69 percent of Cubans; 35 percent of Haitians; and 56 percent of other countries’ citizens.

Texas’s troubled National Guard border mission

Since March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ramped up the National Guard presence along his state’s border with Mexico, part of a $2 billion crackdown that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” About 10,000 troops are helping to set up border fencing with state funds, to interdict migrants on charges of “trespassing,” and to support Texas state police in the border zone.

In the United States, National Guardsmen are military personnel commanded by state governors, though they may also be called up for federal government duty. A separate federal National Guard deployment, begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and continued in the Biden administration, maintained about 4,000 troops along the border in 2021. An extensive December 2021 investigation by Army Times finds this federal deployment “falling apart” amid low morale, discipline problems, and an unclear mission.

The state mission is also deeply troubled, Army Times investigator Davis Winkie revealed in a subsequent report published December 23. Four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star died by suicide between late October and mid-December. A fifth “accidentally shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident Saturday [January 1] and another survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Winkie again reported on January 4.

A possible reason for the wave of suicides may be the disruption to the lives of guardsmen caused by call-ups on just a few days’ notice, causing significant hardship. Like reservists, most National Guard personnel are civilians, with non-military jobs and families, until they are called to serve.

The morale situation is exacerbated by Texas state government budget cuts that slashed tuition assistance grants for guardsmen by more than 50 percent this year. Meanwhile, many soldiers are not being paid on time, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Links

  • New arrivals of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped sharply in the new year. CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021. The number of unaccompanied migrant children in the shelter system run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) fell below 10,000 on January 2, for the first time since March 2021.
  • 11 months after the Biden administration paused border wall construction, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will make improvements and remediations to include “closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities and remediating incomplete gates.” While we haven’t yet confirmed that this will happen, “closing gaps” appears to mean building some wall segments. “Some of the work involves ‘closing construction access gaps’ in the Tucson, El Paso and Yuma Border Patrol sectors ‘to address safety concerns,’” the Arizona Republic reports. “Other activities will involve flood and erosion prevention.” Environmental experts interviewed by the Republic foresee severe impacts on wildlife of closing remaining gaps in Arizona, where one stretch of border wall now runs for a continuous 70 miles, blocking animals’ migratory routes.
  • Biden administration attorneys filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought in a northern California court by three families whose members had been separated by the Trump administration’s notorious “Zero Tolerance” policy. “Actions speak louder than words, and by sending its lawyers to try to throw separated families out of court, the Biden Administration is effectively defending Trump’s cruel and unlawful family separation policy,” said Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Negotiations over damage payments broke down in November between the Biden administration and attorneys representing families. “That pits administration lawyers against immigrants who had their children seized—a legally and politically perilous scenario for a president whose support from Latinos and liberals is already shaky,” the Washington Post put it.
  • CBP is conducting a review of “Operation Whistle Pig,” a Trump-era program in which the agency’s secretive Counter Network Division used government databases to “vet” journalists, NGO personnel, members of Congress and others.
  • Tijuana recorded 1,972 homicides in 2021, a slight decrease from the previous two years—but with a population of 1.7 million people, that would be a homicide rate of nearly 120 per 100,000 residents, far higher than the hardest-hit U.S. cities. The homicide rate in Ciudad Juárez was nearly as high as Tijuana’s, with 1,424 recorded murders in a city of 1.3 million. Juárez’s 2021 homicide total, though, was 13 percent smaller than a year earlier.
  • The 2021 U.S. Senate session ended without a vote on the Biden administration’s nomination of Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Texas, to be director of ICE. Republican senators have opposed his nomination, as Gonzalez’s department had curtailed some migration enforcement cooperation with ICE. His nomination was reintroduced on January 5. If approved, Gonzalez would be the first Senate-confirmed ICE director in five years.
  • As their country slides deeper into dictatorship, 47,534 Nicaraguans applied for asylum or other refuge in Costa Rica during the first 11 months of 2021—16,846 of them in October and November alone. The total since 2018 is 111,712 applicants.
  • At least 2,000 Hondurans may be planning to attempt a new migrant caravan around January 15, a migrant rights activist told local media. No “caravan” has succeeded in making it to the U.S. border since late 2018, as Guatemalan and Mexican authorities have blocked their progress. Guatemalan authorities report that they are preparing “protocols” to respond to a possible caravan arrival.
  • About 150-200 migrants gathered at the border bridge between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas late on the evening of January 2. They were apparently responding to a false rumor that CBP was processing asylum seekers. CBP closed the bridge for about an hour. Border Patrol told local news media that agents in its Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, are currently encountering about 1,000 migrants per day.

5 links: January 7, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

Brazil’s Army has front-loaded its exercise schedule for 2022, clearing the decks so that it can be available during the October 30 presidential elections and their aftermath.

Colombia, Haiti

The U.S. government is carrying out its own investigation of the July assassination of Haiti’s president, diverting a Colombian mercenary witness—apparently with his agreement?—so that he might testify in U.S. court.

Mexico

“On the militarism route, the equation is to centralize decisions as much as possible in the federal authority; on the municipalism route, the equation is to decentralize as much as possible.” Mexico’s government is choosing the former and abandoning the latter.

U.S.-Mexico Border

CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021.

Mexico, Nicaragua, U.S.-Mexico Border

Nicaraguan asylum seekers placed in the “Remain in Mexico” program plead with their immigration judge not to send them back after their hearing. The judge says to take it up with an asylum officer.

I’ll take it

Delighted that the sun is setting after 5:00PM once again, here in Washington. Up in New York it’s still 4:46.

5 links: January 6, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

“There are numerous signs that the commitment of Brazil’s armed forces and the military police to democracy is ambiguous at best.” Not great as Brazil heads into elections that may turn out badly for Bolsonaro, many officers’ preferred candidate.

Colombia

More details and rumors emerge about the ELN-FARC dissident violence over the weekend that produced a rising death toll in Colombia’s far northeast. Judicial investigators are finding victims killed at close, pointblank range, which contrasts with the Defense Ministry’s portrayal of combat.

Mexico

In Mexico, where more than 95,000 people have gone missing and disappeared, many victims’ relatives are not pleased that president López Obrador is putting the militarized National Guard in charge of DNA databases.

A useful snapshot of Mexico’s largest current organized crime groups, their origins, and their territories.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The zombified, court-ordered Remain in Mexico 2.0 is now operating at two ports of entry: El Paso and San Diego.

Are Colombia’s peace accords binding?

In a January 4 interview with Emilio Archila, the Colombian government’s lead official for peace accord implementation, El Espectador’s Sebastián Forero asks, “Why do you always talk about [the Duque administration’s] ‘Peace with Legality,’ policy, but not about the Peace Agreement signed in Havana?”

Archila replies that the text of the 2016 accord, which ended 52 years of fighting with the FARC guerrillas, is not binding unless its commitments are enacted into law.

The Constitutional Court said that the Havana agreements did not generate obligations in themselves, except to the extent that they have been incorporated into legislation, as with all laws issued through Fast Track [the brief 2017 period when Congress could quickly pass laws to cement accord commitments into place]. The Court struck a very good balance made between compliance with the agreements—which must occur in good faith during three presidential administrations—and democracy, because each president will continue to be elected with different mandates. …Those who think that the agreements should be applied as they were signed in Havana are wrong, that is not what the Court said. It said that one should take those texts, turn them into legal and policy instruments, and through them put them into effect, which is what we have done.

Of course, this is technically correct. The peace accord isn’t law, it’s just a 300-page document full of promises that the government made in order to secure a 13,000-person armed group’s commitment to disarm.

The problem with this reasoning should be obvious. What happens if a big chunk of the commitments in the peace accord don’t make it into law? That’s what’s happened with about 41 out of 107 laws or norms that Colombia’s Congress would have had to approve in order to realize all of the peace accord’s commitments.

In the reasoning laid out by Archila, because the Congress did not enact these commitments, they are just dead words on a piece of paper signed in Havana. His administration—led by politicians who opposed the peace accord— is under no obligation to honor those that didn’t make it into legislation.

By another reasoning, though, the failure to pass necessary laws equals non-compliance with the peace accord. Colombia’s Congress didn’t act to pass much outstanding legislation, and especially during the government of Iván Duque (2018-present), the executive branch didn’t push hard for it to do so. Now, that same executive can say, “sorry, we can ignore what was signed five years ago because the laws weren’t passed.”

This creates a terrible set of incentives for any future peace dialogues, whether in Colombia or in other countries with similar legal systems. In order to entice an armed group to disarm, a government can promise its leaders far more than it ever intends to fulfill. Then, after the group disarms and demobilizes, that government can blame the legislature for failing to enact its lofty promises, wash its hands, and walk away.

Why would an armed group negotiate on those terms? If four years of negotiations end up with a piece of paper that the government and legislature can pick and choose from later, why pursue such negotiations?

This is a blow to the credibility of accords resulting from peace talks. If such accords lack credibility, then armed conflicts will be condemned to drag on for longer than they otherwise would. Unnecessarily prolonged conflicts mean years of preventable death, abuse, displacement, and tragedy. The implications of Archila’s position are grave.

5 links: January 5, 2022

(Even more here)

Colombia

Local leaders and analysts reject the government’s move to send two military bases to Arauca, where fighting between the ELN and ex-FARC dissidents killed about two dozen people over the weekend. They argue that it won’t change anything.

Colombia, Haiti

Maybe now we’ll learn more about the plot, involving Colombian ex-military mercenaries, to kill Haiti’s president. Or maybe we won’t.

Costa Rica, Nicaragua

More than 111,000 Nicaraguans have requested asylum in Costa Rica since 2018. 17,000 in October and November alone.

Honduras

A brief Radio Progreso editorial calls on the incoming Honduran government to rein in the military’s enormous power, and for a national conversation about whether Honduras even needs a military.

Mexico

One of Mexico’s top investigative journalists was spied on starting in 2016, and nobody has been held accountable. “I do everything by myself, but since Pegasus I ask myself how it’s possible to defend yourself against this. Would I have to stop using smartphones and do things like they did with Watergate, leaving a ribbon on my balcony so sources know that I want to talk with them?”

Colombia’s prisons still coddle powerful inmates

Kiko Gómez is serving a 55-year sentence in Bogotá’s La Picota maximum-security prison for ordering the 2012 murder of a former mayor in Colombia’s department of La Guajira. Between 2011 and 2013, Gómez was the governor of La Guajira which, because it’s on the Caribbean and borders Venezuela, is hugely strategic for smugglers.

Kiko Gómez was a close ally of Marquitos Figueroa, a major drug trafficker currently imprisoned in Colombia. He and Figueroa repeatedly threatened the lives of journalists and NGO investigators, including some whom I consider friends.

So it’s really frustrating that a video circulating on Twitter shows Kiko Gómez ringing in the New Year with a whisky and beer party in his prison cell, while video-chatting with a noted vallenato musician on his mobile phone.

Colombia’s prisons have been notoriously gentle on wealthy or powerful inmates. Unlike poorer, more vulnerable prisoners, their incarceration conditions are far from austere. This is sometimes a matter of policy, but it’s often the result of endemic corruption in the prison system.

The classic example is El Catedral, the luxurious one-man prison compound overlooking Medellín where Pablo Escobar was briefly held in 1991-92. Even captured guerrilla leaders tend to have large spaces with access to communications and entertainment. I once interviewed some who had phones (in part because they were serving as intermediaries), video games, hundreds of books, pet cats, a pool table, even a maid to clean up.

The U.S. government has spent millions assisting Colombia’s prison system. The U.S. Embassy website describes the State Department International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement “corrections reform program” as “aiding prisons to operate in a safe, secure, humane, and transparent fashion. The primary focus of INL’s assistance includes basic training, international accreditation, and implementation of systems and processes to improve operations.”

Kiko Gómez’s little New Year’s fest shows that this U.S. program has failed even to make a dent in some very key areas, like among high-profile prisoners in one of Bogotá’s most important prisons.

5 links: January 4, 2022

(Even more here)

Colombia

Outrageous that a narco-tied ex-governor, serving a 55-year murder sentence, can hold a whisky-and-beer party from his maximum security Bogotá prison cell.

Colombia, Haiti, Jamaica

A main suspect in the plot to kill Haiti’s president last July is not being extradited to Haiti—instead, he’s headed to his native Colombia where he faces no charges.

Colombia, Venezuela

This is the most detailed report I’ve seen about the fighting in Arauca, Colombia that killed at least 17 people over the weekend. And even this one’s pretty unclear about exactly what is going on.

Mexico

Mexico received 131,448 asylum applications from migrants in 2021. The previous record, set in 2019, was 70,351.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The Biden administration’s court-ordered, but suspiciously enthusiastic, restart of “Remain in Mexico” began in El Paso last month. Now it’s starting in San Diego, and will soon be happening elsewhere.

Snow day

Washington is having its largest snowfall since I think 2019. Here’s what a walk around the neighborhood looks like.

5 links: January 3, 2022

(Even more here)

January 3, 2022

Argentina

Mr. Triaca was 14 when his parents took him to work in Buenos Aires’s Campo de Mayo base, which the military dictatorship at the time used as a detention center. There, he’s certain that he heard discussion of people being sentenced to death, thrown from planes.

Colombia

A soldier giving evidence about military “false positive” killings received serious threats during three months that he lacked a security detail.

Initial reports point to a high death toll and thousands displaced by fighting between ex-FARC dissidents and the ELN in Arauca. The ELN is dominant in this zone, having fended off the FARC in a bloody conflict in the 2000s. There had been an uneasy peace with growing dissident groups. That appears to be over.

Mexico

Mexico saw 25 human rights and environmental defenders killed last year. Far less than Colombia but still extremely serious and among the worst numbers in the world.

A tragic phenomenon in Mexico are groups of parents of disappeared people who band together to go on searches for their loved ones, encountering numerous mass grave sites and getting almost no support from the government. A mother in Sonora is appealing publicly to local organized-crime leaders to let them search. She says they just want closure about their loved ones, they’re not trying to name the victimizers. That victims should even have to make a statement like that shows the depth of Mexico’s security and rule-of-law deterioration.

Sadness (and hope)

We don’t do “sad” well here in the United States. We’re not really mourners or grievers. We go great lengths to avoid feeling sadness. “I’ll give you something to cry about” is something parents actually say to their young children. Perhaps it’s the same around the world.

Unless it’s something immediate, like the departure of a loved one, we put our heads down, furrow our brows, and soldier on. We numb with addictions, from alcohol to fentanyl to overwork to social media. (We write blog posts.) We bury.

We avoid feeling sadness, too, out of a sense that it’s a wrong turn: that it’s the opposite of acting to reverse it. That it’s pointless wallowing, or an admission of defeat.

It isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s first necessary to feel the sadness fully. Only then can we work to ease it. Maybe this part of the year is the time to do that. To give in, if only for a moment.

2021 has been another unrelenting year. Even if we haven’t been hit directly by COVID or other, mostly human-caused, tragedies, there’s an ambient sense of loss. Despair has been building up in our peripheral vision. If we look at it directly, we may find that all the little bits of sadness have accreted into a howling mass.

There’s great sadness for everything we lost during the pandemic. More than 800,000 people gone forever, in this country alone—1 in 400—along with all of the contributions they could have made. People who lost their incomes and saw their careers or ambitions derailed. People who lost parents or those they most admired, their sources of stability. People who just feel a lot less rooted and secure than they did two years ago. All the human connections, from classrooms to churches to celebrations, that never got made.

Sadness for the tens of millions deluded into refusing life-saving vaccines and treatments. Sadness for “essential” workers who’ve taken risks every day for us. Sadness for the big share of our population—the non-voters, the “low information,” those forced to work long hours while raising kids, those simply disconnected from their communities—whom our government, at all levels, didn’t make the extra required effort to reach and protect. Sadness for those in poorer countries denied a chance even to obtain vaccines and treatments.

Our planet: the fading-away species, their dwindling habitats, that we’ll never see again. The human victims of climate-related storms and wildfires. The imminent loss of coastal and floodplain communities, and the mass dislocations to come. The unchecked disappearance of rainforests and coral reefs. Humanity’s frustrating incapacity to act collectively on even modest efforts to change behavior. The knowledge that the weakest and most marginalized will bear the worst of it.

The tents going up in our towns, big and small, as the cost of a home slips out of reach. Kids and parents experiencing homelessness just blocks away. The growing addicted population. The numbingly common overdose deaths: more than 10 per hour nationwide. A Congress run by the “more compassionate” party but failing to pass legislation to help Americans falling through the cracks.

The storm clouds of U.S. democracy’s possible extinction in 2022 and 2024, and the paralysis among the majority who must act to prevent it. The marginalized, like Black Americans, LGBT Americans, undocumented Americans, the poorest Americans, whose experience of life here—interactions with police, employers, immigration agents, judges, and now even voting registries—can barely be called “democracy” anyway.

Our leaders’ remarkable inability—or lack of will—to hold accountable people who’ve broken our laws, including those paying no price for inspiring terror at the U.S. Capitol 50 weeks ago. A sad echo of the impunity granted to all who lied their way through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through systematic torture, and in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis.

The manufactured suffering of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, whom a Democratic U.S. administration has left homeless and cut off from family and support networks in some of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, without even a chance to ask for protection here. The parents in those border cities sending their kids across alone, heartbroken but knowing they’ll be better protected. The peculiar glee with which many U.S. border and immigration personnel carry out these policies.

The growing number of countries becoming populist, nationalist dictatorships—first through fair elections, later through sham elections. The lack of formulas for unseating those regimes. The growing ranks of jailed, tortured, and exiled journalists, activists, and civic leaders. The probability that the United States could become one of those regimes. What that will mean for those of us who continue to speak out.

That’s a big, built-up mass of sadness and loss, constantly hovering in our peripheral vision.

Placing that mass into our direct focus, sitting with it and trying to draw some wisdom from it, can’t happen on a typical, hectic, routine day. We have too many responsibilities and people to attend. We have to stay paid. We certainly don’t sit with it on social media or wherever else our ragged “national conversation” takes place—those venues substitute outrage for sadness, making it worse as we endlessly scroll.

Here at the end of the year, though, most of us have time out of the routine. Hopefully that means at least a few hours not looking at our phones, and reflecting, alone and with those closest to us. If we get a chance to do that, then we should try, for a moment, not pushing the sadness away when it comes.

Go ahead and be with it for a long moment. The end of the year is a good time to do it. Don’t wallow, but do feel it deeply, in all its dimensions. Give in to it: let the sad pass through. It will probably be wrenching. It may hurt.

But then, act. Don’t turn the sadness into anger—at least, not into undirected rage. Sadness and anger are only worthwhile if, like alchemists, we can forge them into something creative.

Examples abound of people doing that. I know hundreds of them from my work in Latin America. But there are hundreds—even thousands—within a 10-mile radius of where you’re reading this.

Those doing registration and get-out-the-vote drives? Fighting for housing, addiction treatment, or asylum? Feeding the hungry, assembling COVID test kits, taking in strangers? They see so much of the sadness on a daily basis that they probably have PTSD. But they keep going.

Right now there are people teaching and mentoring kids, caring for the ill, caring for others’ kids, developing life-saving medical treatments. There are people defending migrants, representing victims of police brutality, advocating for those experiencing homelessness.

People trying to undo deliberate government policies that cause human suffering, at home and abroad. People pushing audacious ideas, from criminal justice reform to housing-first to alternative energy to immigration reform to disarmament to stopping human rights abuse. People trying to end armed conflicts and solve devastating political impasses.

Artists willing new works into existence, changing how we feel or view the world, comforting us, discomforting us, provoking us. People urging political leaders to act, but not content to wait around for them.

As with sources of sadness, the sources of hope are innumerable. They mean so much more than the latest outrages on our phones’ screens.

So give in, for a moment, to the sadness that comes with being alive right now. But then reflect on how to reduce it, how to alchemize it into hope.

Reflect on our own behaviors that might be contributing to the sadness—we all have some. Reflect on how we can better use our talents, our energies, and our connections with people to bring relief, to create… happiness. To create human happiness out of thin air, where nothing existed before but indifference and apathy.

After the sadness, go look for the embers of hope: in our communities, in our families, in our networks, and in ourselves. Then let’s fan them into real flames.

Let’s have a happy new year.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.