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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Weekly Border Update: September 10, 2021

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

Mexico solidifies role as bulwark against U.S.-bound migration

On September 5, for the fourth time in about a week, Mexican immigration agents and militarized National Guard personnel broke up a “caravan” of migrants in Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.

Perhaps 800 people, mostly from Haiti, Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, many of them parents with children, sought to leave en masse from the southern border-zone city of Tapachula on September 4. They got about 30 miles up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway to the town of Huixtla, where most bedded down at a basketball court.

There, before dawn on the 5th, about 200 agents and guardsmen descended on the migrants. The Mexican forces spent the next eight hours chasing people through Huixtla and its environs, capturing many and hauling them away in vehicles. An unknown number escaped.

We saw many people injured and wounded, in states of shock and fear,” reported Isaín Mandujano at Chiapas Paralelo. “Many people stated that the INM [Mexico’s National Migration Institute] took their documents and belongings during the operation.” Human rights defenders alleged that agents deliberately separated families “as a coercion strategy” to get people to turn themselves in. “They began to hit me all over,” a woman told the Associated Press “amid tears, alleging that police also beat her husband and pulled one of her daughters from her arms.” A Honduran man told Chiapas Paralelo that a National Guardsman threw him to the ground and hit him with his rifle butt. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office noted, INM and National Guard personnel also acted aggressively toward human rights defenders and journalists present in Huixtla, interfering with their ability to monitor the situation.

“So far the strategy of the authorities is to allow the migrants to walk, let them get tired, and then launch operations to detain them and return them to Tapachula,” observed reporter Alberto Pradilla at Animal Político. Some, however, are being expelled into Guatemala, even if they have documentation indicating that their asylum cases are pending.

While they await decisions on their petitions, Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they filed their requests. For most, that means Chiapas: the country’s poorest state. Of the 77,599 people who have requested asylum in Mexico this year through August—a number that already breaks Mexico’s full-year record for asylum requests—55,005 applied in the Tapachula office of Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR. The agency is so badly backlogged that asylum case decisions—which used to come within 45 working days, before pandemic-related measures removed the deadline—are taking many months: a migrant who starts the asylum process in Tapachula today might receive an interview appointment date for January or February.

For tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere, this means many months confined to Tapachula, a city of 350,000, with almost no ability to earn an income. With shelters long since filled, migrants are sleeping in slum housing, parks, and streets throughout what Pradilla and Chiapas Paralelo’s Ángeles Mariscal are calling a “city-jail.” Many of the caravan participants claim they are seeking simply to relocate to other parts of Mexico where they might find employment while they wait for COMAR to consider their petitions.

“What is collapsing us in Tapachula is the unusual arrival of Haitians who are not refugees,” COMAR’s coordinator, Andrés Ramírez, alleged in Animal Político. “They do not come from Haiti, they come from Brazil and Chile, but due to the lack of migratory alternatives they come to make their request with COMAR, oversaturating our asylum system and placing us in a very complicated situation to the detriment of those who really need protection.” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center responded that the Haitians are, in fact, “de facto asylum seekers” because they’ve begun the procedure and deserve due process—or some other form of international protection inside Mexico, because their lives and integrity may be at risk if they are deported.

If its just-released 2022 budget request is any indication, Mexico’s federal government does not plan to expand COMAR’s capacity to consider asylum requests. Adjusting for inflation, the request for 45.7 million pesos (US$2.3 million) would represent a 0.58 percent reduction in COMAR’s budget from 2021 to 2022. (The INM’s budget would increase by 0.29 percent.)

Haitian and Honduran migrants interviewed by Chiapas Paralelo allege corruption at both the INM and COMAR. “It takes more than 8 months to get a humanitarian visa, but if you have 4,000 dollars, or 5,000 dollars, it will be granted,” said a man whom the publication identified as a leader of the failed fourth caravan. “They tell us that the [COMAR asylum application] process is free, but there are people who ask us for money to enter, there are people who tell us that we have to hire a lawyer,” said a Haitian migrant. Others contend that middlemen offer to quickly secure humanitarian visas for US$1,300 or refugee status cards for US$4,000 to US$5,000. COMAR insists that it does not tolerate any corrupt behavior.

Human rights defenders and migration experts are raising the volume on their calls for Mexico to change course. “We call on the Executive Branch, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Migration Institute and the National Guard to put an end to the repression, detention, and violence against forcibly displaced persons, and to provide real strategies to solve the root causes of this displacement,” reads a statement from numerous Mexican human rights groups.

Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and now an independent senator, held a press conference to demand that top officials testify about the numerous abuse allegations coming out of Chiapas. The National Guard and INM are “out of control,” the senator said. “What Mexico is doing is the dirty work of the United States, first Trump and now Biden. We did not create the National Guard to chase migrants, but to fight crime.”

Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who headed the INM during the first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, told Spain’s El País that the images of abuse in Chiapas “portray a profound regression of this government’s migration policy, which I believe had started out with a very different scenario, one of respect for human rights. We’re on the other side now.” This, Guillén added, is a result of Mexico’s “institutional internalization of the containment agreements established with the Trump Administration.” Now, “it is in line with militarization. The INM and the Guard are acting as though they’re confronting an enemy.”

WOLA’s Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer published a commentary calling on the Biden administration to “cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd.”

“We don’t accept pressure from any government,” said President López Obrador in one of a few daily press conferences at which the migration issue came up this week. “Yes, we have this situation that concerns us and that we are dealing with, but it’s not because we’re puppets of the U.S. government, it’s because we’re putting things in order and helping, protecting.” López Obrador alleged that a “disinformation campaign” by his political adversaries is behind many of the allegations of human rights abuse and corruption.

“We do this,” the president said, “because we have to care for the migrants, though it seems paradoxical. If we allowed them to cross to the north of the country to cross the border, we would be running risks, many risks. We just rescued a very large group of migrants in the north who were practically kidnapped.” (Anarticle at the Mexican publication Lado B explores how Mexican migration authorities favor such euphemisms to describe their work: “rescues” instead of “apprehensions,” “repatriation” instead of “deportation,” “migratory stations” instead of “detention centers.”)

López Obrador mentioned that two INM agents had been fired for kicking a migrant on video during an attempted caravan the previous week. Francisco Garduño, the INM’s commissioner, told reporters that “more will also have to be fired,” but did not know how many more agents face abuse allegations. Asked about videos showing personnel beating migrants, the National Guard’s commander, retired Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio, responded only, “Todo tranquilo, estamos trabajando”—“don’t worry, we’re working on it.”

The Mexican president called on the United States to accept more migrants in order to face its labor shortages, and to provide more assistance to Central America. “That is what is going to be raised again today with the U.S. government, that work be done immediately in Central America because there has been nothing for years.”

By “today,” López Obrador was referring to a September 9 “High Level Economic Dialogue” meeting in Washington, inaugurated by Vice President Kamala Harris. That dialogue’s agenda has four “pillars” of which “pillar two” is “Promising sustainable economic and social development in southern Mexico and Central America,” something Mexico’s president has been advocating for years. López Obrador has particularly sought U.S. support for a program that would pay Central Americans to plant trees; the Biden administration has not yet committed to that. At the September 9 meeting, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard gave his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a letter from López Obrador with a proposal for creating employment opportunities in Central America.

Migration via South America hits record highs

Hundreds of miles to the south, the number of migrants whose northward journeys might lead them to Chiapas keeps growing. In Colombia, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría), 11,400 people, most of them Haitian, are stranded in the Caribbean town of Necoclí. This is the last stop before ferries to the Panama border for migrants who mostly entered Colombia via Ecuador, 700 miles further south.

This is the second time in two months that the number of people waiting in Necoclí has reached 10,000 (see our August 6 update). They have filled hotels and private homes, and many are sleeping on the beach. Mayor Jorge Tobónsays that 1,000 people are arriving in Necoclí each day right now, but the ferries are only talking 500 per day—the result of an agreement between Colombia and Panama to limit the flow into Panama. As a result, “if this trend continues, by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants in Necoclí,” the mayor says.

Panama claims that Colombia is in fact permitting more than 500 migrants per day to depart. “Right now we have 6,500 more people than we would have if the accord had been complied with,” said the director of Panama’s National Migration Service. The country’s security ministersaid that a remarkable 70,000 migrants have arrived in Panama so far this year, way up from 7,000 in the same period of 2020 and 17,000 in the same period of 2019. The Associated Press reported a still-high figure of 50,000, of whom about 16 percent are children.

The most worrying aspect of this sharply increased migration is that this route requires people to cross through Panama’s roadless, ungoverned Darién Gap wilderness. Migrants who travel through South and Central America routinely say that the Darién is the most dangerous part of their journey. As a Pulitzer-winning April 2020 report from Nadja Drost vividly documents, migrants in the Darién are routinely robbed and see dead bodies in a forest dominated by criminal bands and armed groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Doctors Without Borders began providing medical care in May to migrants exiting the jungle from the Darién Gap. Since then, the group has documented 180 cases of rape. 70 percent of the time, the migrants were raped on Panamanian territory. “The group believes the true number of victims is likely far higher since many migrants don’t report the attacks.”

Further south, Ecuador has suddenly become the fourth-largest nationality of migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border. This owes heavily to Mexico’s 2018 decision to lift visa requirements for visiting Ecuadorians. Many who could afford a plane ticket have been flying to Mexico, traveling north, and crossing the land border into the United States. There, most have avoided expulsion under the “Title 42” pandemic policy, since deportation flight capacity to Quito is limited.

Ecuador’s government says 88,696 of its citizens traveled to Mexico from January to July 2021, and only 34,331 have returned. During those seven months, U.S. border agencies encountered citizens of Ecuador 62,494 times.

In response, very likely at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government, Mexico has reinstated its visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens. This may mean a brief reduction in migration from Ecuador, but experts interviewed by the Guayaquil daily El Universo expect that migration routes will adjust. Even if the route becomes more dangerous, the state of the country’s COVID-battered economy may still lead many Ecuadorians to risk the journey.

Biden administration weighs “Remain in Mexico Lite,” feeds into Mexico’s southern-border “chain expulsions”

The Biden administration continues to consider how it will revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” a policy that it bitterly opposes and sought to shut down. As detailed in our August 27 update, the Supreme Court refused to suspend a Texas judge’s order, still under appeal, forcing the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to revive the program, which Donald Trump’s administration launched at the end of 2018.

“Remain in Mexico” sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers back into Mexican border towns, penniless, homeless, and vulnerable to crime, to await eventual immigration hearing dates in the United States. Over 1,500 suffered assault, kidnapping, or other abuse, and less than 2 percent of those who were present for all of their hearings were granted asylum. President Joe Biden suspended Remain in Mexico the moment he was sworn in, in January 2021, and officially ended it on June 1.

Now, though, the court is ordering a restart, and on September 15 the administration must provide Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its first monthly report on the progress of its “good faith efforts.” What those next steps might look like isn’t clear, but reporting is pointing to some sort of limited “Remain in Mexico ‘Lite.’”

Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated his opposition to Remain in Mexico in an interview with CBS news, but acknowledged that “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling.” CBS revealed that “the department’s policy office has been working on logistical plans to facilitate its ‘expeditious reimplementation,’ including cost estimates, according to an internal memo.” Mexico, too, will have to give at least an informal green light; it is not clear where talks about this currently stand.

“Some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in a limited way to deter migration,” unnamed officials told the New York Times. They say the Supreme Court’s ruling gives them a chance to “come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policy.” A proposal under consideration, three sources told Politico, “would require a small number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be processed but give them better living conditions and access to attorneys.”

Asylum advocates reject the idea that a “lite” version of the program can exist.

  • “There’s no lite MPP just as there’s no lite police brutality or lite torture,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.
  • “The answer is not to simply find a gentler, kinder MPP 2.0. That completely flies in the face of his [President Biden’s] promise” to end the program, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center.
  • “There’s no way to implement it in a way that will satisfy actual due process or keep people safe, because it’s impossible to keep migrants safe in Mexico,” said Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many victims of Remain in Mexico.
  • “The reinstatement of MPP will place thousands of asylum seekers in harm’s way and deny them the right to a fair hearing of their claims,” said asylum officers’ union leader Michael Knowles.
  • “I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again,” reads a letter to President Biden, published in the Washington Post, from Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s large migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas. “We must not make children live for months in rain-logged tents. We cannot abandon them to communities where their mothers are afraid to let them use the bathroom at night for fear they might encounter a gang member or be assaulted.”

Instead, advocates are calling on the administration to meet the court’s requirements by “re-terminating” the program. That would mean issuing a memo, as it did when it formally shut down the program in June, addressing Judge Kacsmaryk’s and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals’ concerns that the administration didn’t consider the “benefits” of Remain in Mexico when it decided to close down the program.

A letter from 31 Democratic congressional representatives and senators, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), proposes exactly that. “The court orders leave ample room for your administration to ensure MPP never again puts another person in harm’s way,” it explains:

The decisions suggest that the potential perceived problem with your administration’s termination of MPP was that it did not say enough to demonstrate that it had sufficiently weighed the potential consequences of its decision to terminate. The court did not endorse the states’ claims that the government is actually required to return people to Mexico under the immigration statutes. As amicus briefs explained, those claims were egregiously wrong. Thus, we believe your administration can and should re-terminate MPP with a fuller explanation in order to address any perceived procedural defect of the termination.

While the Biden administration continues to deliberate over what to do about a program that sent 71,000 people to Mexico, though, it continues to carry out a program that, to date, has sent people—including asylum seekers—back to Mexico more than a million times since March 2020. “Title 42,” the pandemic policy permitting rapid expulsions of migrants, without regard to asylum or protection needs, remains in place. Mexico continues to receive expulsions of its own citizens and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Expelled migrants filling a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico are living in even worse conditions than Remain in Mexico victims who had inhabited an encampment in the nearby, and similarly crime-plagued, city of Matamoros, the Los Angeles Times reported. “There’s less potable water, fewer bathrooms, showers and other sanitation that U.S.-based nonprofits spent months installing in Matamoros. Mexican soldiers circle in trucks with guns mounted on top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities.” Reynosa’s critical security situation scares off U.S. volunteers and attorneys. The L.A. Times estimates that 2,000 people are currently inhabiting the plaza. Sister Pimentel’s letter notes, “Recently we estimated that there are close to 5,000 migrants in Reynosa.”

Another encampment with a large number of expelled migrants persists at the other end of the border, right outside the main pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. There, on September 3, migrants were gathering for vaccinations when word quickly spread—inaccurately—that U.S. authorities had opened the border. Hundreds of people rushed to the line, only to find a phalanx of riot gear-clad CBP officers.

Expulsions don’t just happen at Mexico’s northern border. Since early August, DHS has put expelled Central American migrants, including many families with children, on planes destined for Mexico’s far south: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco and Tapachula, Chiapas. Once those planes land, Mexico’s INM has gathered the expelled migrants onto buses and driven them to southern border crossings, instructing them to exit into Guatemala. At no moment do the expelled people have any migratory status in Mexico, much less any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection.

“These expulsions ridicule public health and human rights by crowding people into planes and buses and preventing legal access to asylum in violation of domestic and international law,” reads a report and list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments produced by several organizations, including WOLA. This document, based on Witness on the Border’s monitoring of deportation and expulsion flights, counted 34 planeloads of migrants to Villahermosa and Tapachula—about one every weekday—between August 5 and August 31.

There is no official count of the number of people who have been subject to these “chain expulsions.” Animal Político, citing Guatemala’s migration authority, reports that 4,243 people were expelled between August 22 and September 6. Many were pushed across the line into the very remote village of El Ceibo, a village of a few hundred people in Guatemala’s sparsely populated frontier department of El Petén, on the edge of the Lacandón jungle a few hours’ drive from Villahermosa.

The 4,243 are not all migrants from the U.S. government’s long-distance expulsion flights. The number includes some migrants whom Mexico’s INM apprehended in southern Mexico. Unnamed official sources tell Animal Político that the number of people expelled by the United States “could be around 3,500”: 2,000 whom Mexico went on to expel in El Ceibo, and 1,500 at the Talismán border crossing near Tapachula.

“While the majority are Central American, the expulsion of Venezuelans, Cubans, and even a Senegalese person was recorded.” One may have been a U.S. citizen, Reuters reports. Animal Político has seen evidence that southern Chiapas municipal police captured Haitian families in mid-August, then handed them over to INM, which expelled them into Guatemala.

“Upon their arrival,” migrants expelled at El Ceibo and Talismán “don’t have a peso or a quetzal in their pockets,” Mexico’s La Jornada puts it. At times, the expulsion buses have dropped people in El Ceibo in the middle of the night. “Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport,” reads a briefreport from Human Rights Watch. “Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo.” Some of those expelled, HRW reveals, had pending asylum applications in Mexico.

On September 2, Guatemala’s foreign minister announced an agreement with the U.S. government to send expulsion flights to the airport in Guatemala City instead of to southern Mexico. That agreement, though, will not go into effect until the end of the month—and it of course maintains Title 42’s refusal to consider migrants’ asylum or protection needs.

Links

  • While border-zone migrant deaths from dehydration, exposure, or similar causes are horrifyingly common, most victims have been single adults: migrant parents and children have been rare. That seems to be changing.        
    • A 21-year-old Ecuadorian woman died of dehydration on August 28 after attempting to migrate with her 2-year-old daughter in the desert of Sonora, Mexico, near the U.S. border. Jazmín Lema left her country, likely fleeing domestic violence, on August 21, flying to Mexico and taking buses north until stopped at a migration checkpoint. The child survived.
    • Another Ecuadorian woman, traveling with children aged seven and one, was rescued in the Arizona desert near Yuma after calling 911.
    • These events come just days after the death from dehydration, near Yuma, of a Colombian woman and her oldest child, while her toddler survived.
  • Also near Yuma, a Mexican man died after falling from a 30-foot-high section of border wall. He fell on the Mexican side, requiring rescuers to open a gate in the wall that was not wide enough for an ambulance, then carry him for a mile before he passed away.
  • Texas’s state Facilities Commission has recommended that a joint venture of two companies, Michael Baker International and Huitt-Zollars, get a contract to build fence or wall, using state funds, along parts of the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas’s state budget for 2022 includes $750 million to build barriers. If built at the per-mile cost of the Trump administration’s border wall, this money would build about 30-35 miles of barrier.
  • Writing at the Border Chronicle, a new journalistic newsletter, Todd Miller narrates the rapid growth of a bipartisan “border security industrial complex” made up of well-connected technology, detention, and munitions companies that have been awarded large CBP contracts. These companies’ technologies, Miller warns, are often invasive and threaten civil liberties.
  • At the Intercept, Melissa del Bosque reveals the vast expansion in CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams since their inception in 2015, finding that the secretive units detained and interrogated more than 600,000 travelers at airports and border crossings between 2017 and 2019, about a third of them U.S. citizens. The databases the teams use to flag suspected travelers rely on what is “essentially a black box algorithm,” as an ACLU attorney put it.
  • A third whistleblower has come forward with allegations of abuse of unaccompanied migrant children held at a giant emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, run by contractors of the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Valerie González at the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor rebuts alarmist claims by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by sharing recent data pointing to reduced migration to the busy Rio Grande Valley region during August.
  • About 1,500 people from Michoacán, Mexico have arrived in the border city of Tijuana, displaced by warring organized crime groups who often give them hours to leave their homes.
  • A Georgia National Guard soldier, assigned to the border security mission that Donald Trump launched in 2018, died in a drunk driving incident in McAllen, Texas. The Guard immediately imposed an alcohol ban and curfew on all 3,000-plus personnel assigned to the mission.
  • “Not a single terrorist has illegally crossed the Mexican border and then committed an attack on U.S. soil,” writes the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh in a scathing book review, citing numerous statistics, at Reason.

5 links: September 9, 2021

(Even more here)

Brazil

The threat to Brazil’s institutions has not lapsed, not from Bolsonaro nor from those who unquestionably back him

El Salvador

Santiago Cantón, former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, asks the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke article 20 of the Inter-American Charter to redirect El Salvador to its constitutional framework

Mexico

Uno de los casos más destacables es en el presupuesto de la Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (Comar), que, en términos reales, sufrió un recorte, en medio de la crisis migratoria en la frontera sur

El gobierno del presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador propuso para 2022 un incremento de más de 25 mil millones de pesos al presupuesto de la Guardia Nacional (GN) que, de aprobarse, significaría un alza de más de 60% de los recursos destinados a esta fuerza de seguridad

U.S.-Mexico Border

Anduril Industries’ sentry towers and ghost drones are just one of $2.4 billion and $1.6 billion worth in contracts doled out to CBP and ICE, respectively, from Biden’s inaugural month to the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Unaccompanied Children at the Border: Update through September 7

New arrivals of unaccompanied children are trending steadily downward at the US-Mexico border, after rising in July.

The population of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody is way down, below 500 for the first time in 4 months.

The number in the Health and Human Services Department’s (HHS) network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, remains stubbornly over 14,000.

HHS hasn’t increased the pace at which it discharges children since early May.

The data comes from 116 daily reports saved in a zipfile (13.5 MB) at http://bit.ly/uac_daily.

Photo

Northeast Washington DC’s Metropolitan Branch Trail this morning.

5 links: September 6, 7, and 8, 2021

(Even more here)

September 8, 2021

Brazil

The pro-Bolsonaro protests seem to take Brazil one step closer to a “January 6” scenario, a crisis similar to the insurrection and riots at the US Capitol

At least three times — once soon after Bolsonaro’s second speech of the day — groups of demonstrators in Brasilia tried to get past police barriers, but officers repelled them with pepper spray

Colombia

Gold is not only more valuable than cocaine but easier to launder, with a fraction of the risk involved in trafficking drugs

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Teams of prosecutors are being embedded in the U.S. embassies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras tasked with providing backup to local law enforcement efforts. They are also being armed with a new authority to allow the more rapid revoking of visas, within days, of suspected criminals

Guatemala, Mexico

En Frontera Talismán, Chiapas, los expulsados son abandonados sin apoyo de ninguna institución


September 7, 2021

Colombia

Los generales (r) Jaime Alfonso Lasprilla Villamizar, Miguel Ernesto Pérez Guarnizo y William Fernando Pérez Laiseca, así como los otros siete oficiales, son comparecientes forzosos

El Salvador

The rollout of cryptocurrency has been upstaged by a more urgent concern: a series of withering attacks by Bukele and his ruling party on El Salvador’s three-decade-old democracy

Panama

Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical care to migrants in the hamlet of Bajo Chiquito, on the northern edge of the Darién, says it has documented 180 cases of rape since starting operations here in May

U.S.-Mexico Border

I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again

This process of identifying vulnerable asylum-seekers, carried out by a consortium of nongovernmental organizations, has come to an end as of Aug. 31


September 6, 2021

Colombia

¿Por qué se decidió convertir los Acuerdos de paz en una razón de conflicto?

El Salvador

This week may go down in Salvadoran history as the week in which Nayib Bukele completed his consolidation of one man / one party rule in El Salvador

Nicaragua

Since June, the police have jailed or put under house arrest seven candidates for November’s presidential election and dozens of political activists and civil society leaders, leaving Mr. Ortega running on a ballot devoid of any credible challenger and turning Nicaragua into a police state

U.S.-Mexico Border

Unlike other law enforcement or intelligence agencies, CBP has been given the authority by Congress to conduct warrantless searches, which it uses to collect enormous amounts of personal information, often from U.S. citizens

Soon after the Matamoros camp was bulldozed in March, a new camp formed about 55 miles west across from the border bridge to the more dangerous, Gulf crime cartel stronghold of Reynosa

Colombia Peace Update: September 4, 2021

Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org.

Colombia Peace Update: September 4, 2021

Security deteriorates along the Colombia-Venezuela border

The ELN’s “Camilo Torres Urban Warfare Front” took credit for a bomb that detonated outside a police station in Cúcuta, the largest city along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, on the morning of August 30. The device wounded 14 people, among them 12 police, in Cúcuta’s Atalaya neighborhood.

“Cúcuta is subject to these types of terrorist acts and violence in its rural zones due to the presence of no less than 20 foreign criminal groups,” said Jairo Tomás Yáñez, the mayor of the city of half a million people. While Venezuelan organized crime operates in the area, particularly a band calling itself the Tren de Aragua, it’s not clear why the mayor would have specified “foreign” groups. Colombian groups active in Cúcuta, the conflictive nearby Catatumbo region, and on the Venezuelan side of the border include the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, at least two groups descended from the paramilitary networks of the 1990s and 2000s (the Gulf Clan and Rastrojos), a criminal group descended from the long-demobilized EPL guerrillas which the government calls the “Pelusos,” and smaller local bands.

The latest attack follows two high-profile events in June: a car bomb on the premises of the Army’s 30th Brigade headquarters in Cúcuta on June 15, and President Iván Duque’s helicopter being hit by gunfire as it overflew the region 10 days later. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía) has arrested and charged several people, including a former Army captain, for both crimes, alleging their affiliation with the “33rd Front” ex-FARC dissident group.

These incidents, including the August 21 killing of the vice president of a Junta de Acción Comunal (local advisory board) in rural Cúcuta, “are a small sample of the complexity that the area is experiencing,” warns a Peace and Reconciliation Foundation analysis of Cúcuta, which sees the situation worsening as Colombia’s 2022 presidential and congressional elections draw near. “Some of the factors affecting this reality have to do with the closing of the border [both during and before the pandemic], the reconfiguration of armed actors, and the increase in cocaine cultivation and processing” in this region, “a zone without the rule of law or institutional presence.”

Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander department, is just south of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo enclave, a cluster of about a dozen barely governed municipalities that currently grows more coca than any other region of Colombia. The region “effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state,” reads an analysis by Joshua Collins at The New Humanitarian. Catatumbo has easy access to Venezuela through the large border municipality of Tibú and the presence of all of the above-mentioned armed groups, while one of Colombia’s main oil pipelines (the Caño Limón-Coveñas) runs across its territory.

Catatumbo has strong campesino, Indigenous, and other organizations, including eight former FARC women, profiled this week in a lengthy Vorágine article, leading local reintegration efforts near the site where they demobilized. It has always been a dangerous place to be a social leader, though. This week, the “Madres del Catatumbo por la Paz,” a women’s organization, denounced that its entire leadership had received new and serious threats.

South and east of Norte de Santander, the oil-producing border department of Arauca is also seeing increased tensions. The department has been under heavy ELN influence since the 1980s, endured a bloody mini-war between the ELN and FARC in the 2000s, and is now seeing a growing presence of ex-FARC dissidents. In Saravena, Arauca’s westernmost border municipality, members of an armed group this week stopped employees of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (UBPD, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord) and demanded that they hand over their official vehicle. Municipal authorities meanwhile held an “extraordinary security meeting” after an ex-FARC dissident group calling itself the 28th Front threatened local Indigenous communities, accusing them of petty theft.

An internal dispute between leaders of the 10th Front, a large and fast-growing ex-FARC dissident group, brought a jump in homicides in Arauca in August: at least 28 in a department of 230,000 people. La Silla Vacía notes how the dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca river. Across from the departmental capital, “We can stop at the river’s edge and look them in the face,” said Arauca’s chief of police.

Corruption enables this on both sides of the border. “In Arauca,” on the Colombian side, “there are rumors that all spheres of power are permeated by the dissidents,” La Silla notes. “The most frequent [rumor] is that a good part of the political class of the department works with them.” In the departmental capital, the accusations “even touch the municipality’s security forces.”

Relations between the ELN and local government have been alleged for decades in Arauca. This is the region of Colombia that the ELN, through its powerful Domingo Laín front, is believed to control most tightly. While the dissidents’ presence grows, though, the ELN “has been conspicuous by its absence,” La Silla Vacía observes. “According to a source close to a commander of that group, they continue in the tone of not confronting them in order to avoid a guerrilla war like the one the region suffered ten years ago. However, the tension between them continues to grow.”

Reuters reporter Sarah Kinosian documents the extent to which the ELN and dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the border. In a village in Zulia—across from Colombia’s department of Cesar, which lies north of Catatumbo—ELN members from Colombia “function as both a local government and a major employer,” recruiting people—including children—to work in Colombian coca fields, Kinosian writes. “Rebels who once hid from Colombia’s military in Venezuela’s jungles,” mainly ELN and ex-FARC dissidents, “have moved into population centers, ruling alongside Maduro’s government in some places, supplanting it in others.” ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, speaking from Havana where he was a negotiator until peace talks ended in January 2019, told Reuters that while guerrillas cross into Venezuela, he denies that they are present with the permission of Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

Gen. Montoya will not be indicted in regular justice system

In a decision that, El Tiempo reported, “didn’t cause surprise for the majority of sectors,” Bogotá’s Superior Tribunal refused to allow the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to charge or indict Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, for human rights crimes. The court ruled on August 30 that Colombia’s regular criminal justice system, led by the Fiscalía, may continue to investigate Gen. Montoya’s role in the military’s numerous killings of non-combatants during his tenure. But while his case remains before the 2016 peace accords’ special transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP), the Fiscalía cannot separately charge him or bring him to trial.

Gen. Mario Montoya, now 72, faces allegations of creating a command climate and incentive structure that led soldiers to kill thousands of civilian non-combatants. Throughout the country, under pressure to increase “body counts,” officers claimed falsely that civilian victims were armed-group members killed on the battlefield. The JEP is investigating these abuses, known as “false positives,” and has charged former commanders in two regions of the country so far. It surprised the country earlier this year by releasing a very high estimate of the number of civilians killed by the military: 6,402 between 2002 and 2008, which would be well over 40 percent of the armed forces’ claimed combat kills during those years.

A highly decorated officer whom many Colombians associated with the country’s security gains of the mid-2000s, Gen. Montoya resigned in November 2008 after a particularly egregious example of “false positive” killings came to light, blowing the scandal open after years of human rights groups’ denunciations. Former subordinates have portrayed the general as a key architect of the incentive system that encouraged officers to pad their units’ body counts even if it meant paying criminals to kill the innocent.

In 2018, Gen. Montoya agreed to have his case tried in the JEP instead of the regular justice system, even though the Fiscalía at the time was barely moving on its investigation of him. In his appearances before the transitional justice tribunal so far, Montoya has insisted on his innocence. This is risky: if he were to confess to his role in false positives and take actions to make amends to victims, Gen. Montoya would most likely be sentenced to up to eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison. However, if he pleads “not guilty” and the JEP determines otherwise, he could go to regular prison for up to 20 years. The JEP has not yet formally charged Montoya with anything.

The Fiscalía, led by chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa, surprised many in July when it announced it would seek to indict Gen. Montoya for his role in 104 “false positive” killings that took place after a 2007 order requiring the military to de-emphasize body counts. With his case already moving in the JEP, it was not clear whether the regular justice system had the legal standing to issue charges against Gen. Montoya at the same time. On August 30, Judge Fabio Bernal decided that it did not.

For now, Gen. Montoya’s case will proceed in the transitional justice system. While the Fiscalía is not appealing the August 30 decision, relatives of some “false positive” victims plan to do so, because they believe that separate charges in the regular justice system would increase the chances of the General being held accountable. According to Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, who represents some of the victims, a Fiscalía indictment would have helped because of Gen. Montoya’s reticence so far before the JEP:

If the Fiscalía were to continue with these investigations and charge him for at least some of these acts, it would contribute to the participants reaching a scenario of recognition [of responsibility for crimes]. In the case of Montoya, although he submitted voluntarily to the JEP, because his case was not advanced in the regular justice system, he has come to the [transitional] jurisdiction with an attitude of denying his participation in the policy that promoted these acts, and of not recognizing his responsibility from any point of view.”

Government blames Nariño violence on court-ordered freeze in coca eradication

A firefight between anti-narcotics police and members of the “Óliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 14 police wounded in a rural zone of Tumaco, Nariño, not far from the Ecuador border, as they sought to raid a cocaine laboratory on August 20.

This is part of a worsening climate of violence in Nariño’s Pacific coast region, in Colombia’s far southwest, which is one of the country’s busiest and most fought-over drug trafficking corridors. The same municipalities host coca fields, processing laboratories, and coastal transshipment points. Just north of Tumaco, in the “Telembí Triangle” region, fighting between various armed groups, most of them ex-FARC dissidents, has displaced over 21,000 people—a large part of the population—so far this year.

Reporting from El Tiempo mentions fighting between three factions of ex-FARC dissidents, mostly derived from former Tumaco-area FARC militia members who did not demobilize: the “Óliver Sinisterra,” whose highest profile leader, alias “Guacho,” was killed in 2018; the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico; and more recently members of the Putumayo-based “Comandos de la Frontera,” a group made up of former guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and organized crime. The latter group is apparently aligned with the “Segunda Marquetalia,” the dissident faction founded by former chief FARC peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other top ex-FARC leaders.

All the armed groups “are looking to control coca crops and production,” a “church spokesperson who knows the region” told El Tiempo. “Everyone here has a Mexican ally, from a cartel, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Defense Minister Diego Molano is blaming increased violence on a court ruling. In May 2021, in response to a judicial appeal (tutela) from the Nariño Pacific Human Rights Network, which represents several Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities, the Superior Tribunal of Pasto prohibited all coca eradication—including that done by manual eradication teams—until the government engages in prior consultation with affected communities. The court ordered the Interior Ministry to carry out consultations within 100 days, with a possible 60-day extension. It is not clear how much progress the Ministry has made, if any, on consultations with residents of these remote, poorly governed zones.

Since May, then, coca eradication has been on hold in much of 10 municipalities along coastal Nariño. This includes Tumaco, which ranks second in coca acreage among Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. Nariño, however, has seen a decline in coca cultivation, from nearly 42,000 hectares in 2018 to 30,751 in 2020, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Long the number-one coca-growing department, Nariño has been surpassed by Norte de Santander (see the Venezuela discussion above). About one-fifth of Nariño’s coca is planted in indigenous reserves, the UNODC estimates.

Molano, the defense minister, calls the result of the court order “a case of national security,” adding that “denying the possibility of manual eradication in 10 municipalities of Nariño has had an impact on the increase in homicides and forced displacements in that area.”

The communities themselves, though, blame a near-total absence of government presence, including security and other basic services. “We have been negotiating with the governments in power for almost 26 years, and we have not been able to get roads we need to transport our legal products,” a leader of Nariño’s Juntas Comunales La Cordillera organization told El Tiempo. “We have no roads, we have no schools. We want to substitute [coca], but they do not present us with options.” Community leaders note that the government is badly behind on payments promised to those who voluntarily eradicate their coca, in the framework of a program set up by the 2016 peace accords.

Unable to eradicate coca in coastal Nariño, “the authorities have opted for a path that, paradoxically, is the one that many experts recommend because of its effectiveness: attacking other links, such as inputs or capital for the purchase of coca leaf and coca base,” reads an El Tiempo editorial. It is not clear how energetically the government is pursuing these alternative measures, though, or whether they could possibly be enough to substitute for state presence in a climate of worsening combat between guerrilla dissidents and other armed groups.

Links

  • WOLA’s latest alert details numerous cases of human rights abuse committed around the country during July and August.
  • VICE reports on the National Police’s practice, during the April-June Paro Nacional protests, of taking arrested protesters to unofficial “black sites” in Cali, where hundreds were beaten and forced to make false confessions.
  • Colombia’s universities “were not exempt from the conflict, and were stigmatized. When I was director of police intelligence, I contributed to stigmatizing it, because I considered them to be related to armed groups and that guerrilla fighters were linked to them. What a big mistake,” said former National Police chief and vice president Gen. Oscar Naranjo, in an appearance before the Truth Commission.
  • Colombia and Panama have agreed to limit, to 500 people per day, the flow of migrants from other countries traveling northbound from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap jungle region. “So far this year, Panama estimates more than 50,000 migrants have come through the dangerous Darien route,” the Associated Press reports, adding, “An estimated 15,000 migrants are currently en route through Colombia heading for Panama.”
  • U.S. Army South, the Army component of U.S. Southern Command, held a two-day seminar for members of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), who will soon deploy to Colombia, Panama, and Honduras for a lengthy military training mission. The SFAB’s first visit to Colombia, between May and October 2020, generated much publicity and some controversy.
  • An investigation by La Silla Vacía finds that the Land Restitution Agency—a body created in 2011 by the government of Juan Manuel Santos—has recently been inaccurately inflating the amount of land that it has been distributing to small farmers dispossessed by the conflict.
  • Interviewed by the New York Times, President Iván Duque said “he had done more than his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, to put in place the peace deal’s landownership overhauls and development plans that would give poor farmers and former rebels jobs and opportunities.”
  • WOLA laments the unexpected and premature death of our longtime colleague and friend Yamile Salinas, a great and generous legal mind, teacher, and fighter for land rights and human rights in Colombia’s countryside.

WOLA Podcast: reflecting on 40 years of Latin America human rights advocacy with Geoff Thale

WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, retired this week. Geoff has been doing citizen advocacy for human rights in Latin America, full time, since the early 80s—before this sort of work was even a “thing.”

The work looks vastly different today. We go over how the region, work in Washington, and the role of places like WOLA have changed in a reflective new podcast episode.


Here’s the language from WOLA’s website:

Geoff Thale has been with the Washington Office on Latin America since 1995, and has served as its president since 2019. Much has changed about advocacy and foreign policy since the beginning of his time in Washington. In this conversation, Adam and Geoff discuss the evolution of human rights advocacy towards Latin America, WOLA, and the opportunities and challenges for human rights advocates working on the region.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

5 links: September 3, 2021

(Even more here)

Brazil

A massive debate continues to bubble inside the US government, as well as in academic and policy circles, over whether any short-term gain from engaging with Bolsonaro, even with the two presidents at arm’s length, is worth the possible long-term damage doing so might cause to Washington’s reputation

Colombia

“I was having problems focusing, I was so disoriented from the beatings,” he said. “But I could hear screams coming from other rooms—the sounds of other people being beaten too”

Colombia, Panama

An estimated 15,000 migrants are currently en route through Colombia heading for Panama

Mexico

Por tercera ocasión, la caravana de migrantes fue interceptada por un operativo del INM y la Guardia Nacional. Autoridades han negado información sobre el saldo de heridos y detenidos

U.S.-Mexico Border

Bashant has not yet decided what she will order as a remedy in the four-year-old class-action case. She asked both sides to submit additional briefings on the subject by October 1

Weekly Border Update: September 3, 2021

Cross-posted from wola.org. 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

Mexico pushes back asylum seekers attempting to leave its southern border zone

Several hundred migrants from Haiti and other countries sought to leave Mexico’s border zone with Guatemala, where many are confined while awaiting outcomes of their asylum cases. Three times in the past week, their northward progress was blocked—at times brutally and on camera—by personnel from Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) and its National Guard (a militarized police force, created in 2019, under Army control).

Each time, authorities allowed small “caravans” to walk several dozen miles up the highway that follows the Pacific coast west and north, away from the Guatemala border, through Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. Each time, authorities then swept in and apprehended migrants as they rested, or sought to block them further up the highway. No significantly sized group of migrants managed to make it more than about 110 kilometers into Mexico. (Despite several attempts, no “caravan” of migrants has succeeded in traveling through Mexico’s southern border zone since January 2019.)

The migrants are chiefly from Haiti, but were joined by Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and other countries—even apparently some from Equatorial Guinea. Many are parents with children; some are unaccompanied children. Most have traveled through many countries, including all of Central America, only to have Mexico block their progress near its southern border.

The groups sought to leave Tapachula, a city of about 350,000 people near the Guatemala border in Chiapas’s Pacific lowlands. There, thousands have applied for asylum in Mexico with COMAR, the Mexican government’s refugee commission, whose Tapachula office is its busiest in the country by far. Through July, COMAR had received 64,378 asylum requests throughout Mexico; of those, 45,072 were filed in Tapachula. (COMAR’s year-to-date asylum request total jumped to 77,559 through August, the agency’s director, Andrés Ramírez, just revealed. That’s a new record: eight months into 2021, Mexico has now received more asylum requests than in any full year.)

Though Mexican law requires COMAR to issue an asylum decision within 45 working days, a pandemic emergency measure has waived this deadline. The badly backlogged agency now takes many months to decide cases. “Currently, if someone wants to apply for asylum, they receive an appointment for the month of January,” reports Alberto Pradilla of the online news outlet Animal Político. “There’s a historic arrival of migrants to Mexico as a result of the systemic crises in their countries of origin, and the Mexican government has not strengthened the migration system in terms of budget and personnel,” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told Chiapas Paralelo.

While awaiting a decision on their asylum applications, migrants receive a document that allows them to be present only in the state where they submitted their claim. . This is a difficult part of Mexico in which to be confined: Chiapas is the poorest of Mexico’s 32 states, with three-quarters of its population living below the poverty line. Few opportunities exist for migrants to generate an income while they remain there. Chiapas Paralelo estimates that 5,000 Haitians, and 3,000 Central Americans and Cubans, currently find themselves in this position in Tapachula. This number vastly overwhelms shelter space, and many are living in severely substandard conditions.

Many of the migrants trapped in Tapachula say they aren’t necessarily seeking to enter the United States: they would be content to settle in Mexico, but in a part of the country—like the more economically dynamic north—where employment opportunities exist. “The important thing we need is to leave Chiapas, because in Chiapas there is no work,” a migrant told veteran Chiapas-based journalist Ángeles Mariscal. “In Chiapas there is no way to live, the people are treating us like animals.”

The Haitian and other migrants marooned in Tapachula have begun gathering, usually near COMAR’s offices, to protest their situation. The protests became larger in size during the last week of August. Then, on the morning of August 28, a group of several hundred left the city on foot, walking up the Pacific coastal highway that leads into Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico.

This group walked about 42 kilometers, getting as far as the town of Huixtla, Chiapas before being captured and broken up. On the road, INM agents backed up by riot gear-clad National Guard personnel surrounded and blocked the migrants’ passage. Their methods were often brutal: mobile phone videos showed a Haitian man being pushed to the ground by guardsmen’s riot shields as he held his two-year-old baby, and an INM agent kicking another man in the head as others restrained him on the ground. It appears that one of the individuals restraining the man was Jorge Alejandro Palau, the director of Tapachula’s Siglo XXI facility, often described as the largest migrant detention center in Latin America.

A second group of migrants got through authorities’ roadblocks and made it to the town of Mapastepec, Chiapas, 107 kilometers from Tapachula. On the morning of September 1, as the migrants sought to rest in the town’s central square, INM and National Guard personnel surrounded and arrested them, chasing many throughout the town.

A third group left Tapachula on September 1, only to be detained and dispersed, in Mapastepec and other towns, within about 24 hours. INM agents raided hotels in towns along the migrant route, and pursued them through rural-dwellers’ fields and yards. A few migrants confronted the agents, throwing stones. Journalists and human rights defenders in Mapastepec reported “aggressions” at the hands of authorities; National Guard personnel used their shields to block reporters’ attempts to record video of what was happening.

Mexican authorities have not revealed what happened to the migrants captured in these operations. Haitians and others may have been “brought to Tapachula and left on the street in the middle of the night,” the Associated Press reported. Many captured Central American migrants were deported into Guatemala.

Video images of Mexican authorities beating and roughing up migrants generated outrage all week. “These painful images confirm the Mexican government’s turn into full-on immigration deterrence at the behest of the U.S. government,” columnist Leon Krauze wrote at the Washington Post. At VICE, Emily Green noted the contrast between the Mexican government’s high-profile reception of over 100 refugees from Afghanistan, and its treatment of other asylum seekers—more than 75 percent of whom had been granted refugee status by COMAR through July of this year.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the issue at a September 1 press conference. “The human rights of migrants haven’t been violated,” López Obrador insisted. “The exceptional case of a few days ago, in which two immigration officers kicked a Haitian citizen, was dealt with that same day. They were dismissed and placed at the disposal of the corresponding internal control body.”

Three UN agencies issued a statement on August 31 calling the video images “profoundly concerning,” noting threats to human rights defenders in the context of the Chiapas operations, and calling on Mexico to hold accountable all who committed abuses. “What happened in Chiapas last weekend is yet another example of the need to strengthen COMAR’s capacity for asylum processes, and to establish migratory alternatives that guarantee the human rights of migrants,” reads the document from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In a separate statement, the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) called out Mexican forces’ excessive use of force and cautioned against cracking down every time migrants travel as a group.

President López Obrador upheld the policy of containing migrants “as far as possible in the south, southeast of the country. Because allowing them to enter the territory completely, to cross our country, means many risks of human rights violations, especially on the northern border.” The Mexican president repeated his call on the United States to collaborate on a strategy that addresses the root causes of why people are migrating, declaring his intention to send a letter next week to U.S. President Joe Biden laying out a proposal.

Mexico’s Interior Department, which includes the INM, indicated that it is communicating with UNHCR and Mexico’s Bishops’ Conference regarding plans “to establish a humanitarian encampment in the state of Chiapas, where attention would be offered to the migrant population of Haitian origin.” The Bishops’ Conference put out a statement clarifying that it received an “encampment” proposal but has not necessarily agreed to support it. UNHCR stated that this Mexican government proposal was one of several issues that they discussed with regard to attending to the Haitian population. 

The pushback operations in Chiapas drew fresh attention to the role of Mexico’s military in the effort to keep migrants from reaching the United States. The recently created National Guard is currently made up of more than 75 percent active-duty military personnel; while he originally billed it as a civilian force, President López Obrador announced plans in June to make it a branch of the Army.

On August 27, the day before alarming videos of migrant abuse would be recorded in Chiapas, Mexico’s defense secretary, Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval, told reporters that “detaining all migration” is now the armed forces’ principal mission in Mexico’s border zones. Documents accompanying President López Obrador’s annual September 1 “state of the union” presentation reveal that, as of June, Mexico had deployed 6,244 troops and 1,449 guardsmen to its southern border states on migration control missions. The document claims that military and National Guard personnel captured 134,932 migrants. Mexico’s migration agency, the INM, reports capturing 157,919 during the 12 months ending in July 2021—so either there is a lot of double-counting, or the armed forces have been involved in the vast majority of Mexico’s recent nationwide migrant apprehensions  The Iberoamerican University found, based on information requests, that 78 percent of migrant detentions between June 2019 and December 2020 were at the hands of soldiers or members of the National Guard. 

Remain in Mexico’s “awkward” restart

The Biden administration continues to reckon with how to comply with a Texas judge’s order—upheld, for now, by the Supreme Court on August 24—that it reinstate a policy that it bitterly opposes. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk has forced the Biden administration to carry out “good faith efforts” to revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program. Launched by the Trump administration in December 2018, this program forced more than 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexican border towns, where many were left homeless, without income, and preyed upon by criminals.

As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged to undo the controversial policy, and he issued an order suspending it on Inauguration Day 2021. Now that his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must reinstate it, next steps are not clear, a Washington Post analysis finds. “Early indications suggest the controversial Trump-era policy may not return on a large scale,” report Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan. Judge Kacsmaryk has required the Biden administration to file monthly reports, with the first one due September 15, on its “good-faith efforts” to restart the program.

“I have talked to DHS and of course digesting this Supreme Court decision, my understanding is that they will have to start implementing it,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district includes a busy section of the Texas-Mexico border, told reporters. “They are waiting on those instructions as they are working in the D.C. headquarters on that as I talked to the judges that will have to be involved with this, and they are also getting ready to start getting this and coordinating with DHS.”

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, an ardent proponent of Remain in Mexico, accused the Biden administration of “slow-playing” the program’s re-establishment. On a visit to the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border zone, Cruz recounted a meeting with local Border Patrol leadership. “We asked what have you done to comply with the order? They said, ‘nothing.’ They said they were instructed to do nothing. Their political leadership instructed them to do nothing.”

Whether, and at what scale, Remain in Mexico might restart depends on the government of Mexico, which would once again have to agree to receive a large population of non-Mexican citizens. Two Mexican officials interviewed by the Washington Post signaled willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government on managing migration and the border, including “technical talks” about a Remain in Mexico restart. However, these officials noted that “their capacity to take back more U.S. asylum seekers and migrants remains limited… and they regard other enforcement tools and policies to be more effective.”

The López Obrador government’s first ambassador to the United States, Martha Bárcena—who retired earlier this year—speculated that a revived Remain in Mexico would be smaller. “Mexico does not have the resources to take in asylum seekers on an indefinite basis, as it did last time,” she told the Post, adding, “the lesson from the last time was that the U.S. doesn’t keep its promise to rapidly process their cases.”

Though he “has not engaged in any conversations with Mexican counterparts on the topic,” Sen. Cruz called on the Biden administration to bully Mexico into agreeing to a robust restart of Remain in Mexico. “In particular, President Trump threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs, which would have a massive economic impact on Mexico. That threat got their attention. Absent that threat, there’s no way they would have agreed to it.”

Between February and the Supreme Court’s upholding of Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision, the Biden administration worked with UNHCR to parole into the United States 13,256 migrants with pending asylum applications who had been forced to remain in Mexico, the Arizona Republic reported. Another 3,500 migrants had registered with UNHCR, 2,000 of whom were still having their eligibility verified and 1,500 of whom were approved and awaiting their dates to enter the United States. Because of the courts’ decision, these 3,500 people must now remain in Mexico.

In California, the local ACLU filed to revive a January 2020 preliminary injunction that had required guaranteed access to counsel for migrants subject to Remain in Mexico in immigration courts within the jurisdiction of the federal courts’ Ninth Circuit (California and Arizona). The courts had vacated this injunction in June, when the Biden administration had formally ended Remain in Mexico.

“Of all the draconian measures instituted by former President Donald Trump, this was among the worst—right up there with separating kids from their parents,” reads a strong editorial in the San Antonio Express-News. “Immigration advocates are urging the administration to appeal the ruling, but since the high court deemed the suspension of the policy ‘capricious,’ the Department of Homeland Security may be able to solve the problem by fashioning a clearer statement about its intentions.”

A troubling report documents CBP abuses in Arizona

A report from two Catholic human rights advocacy groups details 35 troubling cases indicating “a pattern of abuse by Customs and Border Protection (CBP)” in the Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border. Due Process Denied, produced by the Washington-based NETWORK and the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona-Sonora (KBI, recipient of WOLA’s 2017 human rights award), finds a “systemic culture of abuse of migrants.”

KBI operates a shelter and kitchen in Nogales, Mexico near Arizona’s busiest border crossing, about an hour and a half south of Tucson. Many of the migrants in their care have just been released from CBP’s custody, or otherwise interacted with the U.S. border agency after being deported, expelled under the Title 42 pandemic measure, forced to “remain in Mexico,” or prevented from asking for asylum at a port of entry.

When these migrants describe suffering abuse at the hands of U.S. personnel, KBI documents it, and often files complaints with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility or DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. KBI stands out among border groups for the extent and detail of its abuse documentation.

The Due Process Denied report highlights 35 cases in Nogales from October 2020 to mid-August 2021. “The abuses range from migrants being denied due process, such as not given an opportunity to seek asylum or destruction of documentation, to outright physical violence.” NETWORK and KBI divide them into five categories: “1. Immigrant claims of credible fear dismissed; 2. Immigrants being forced to sign documentation and then expelled; 3. Theft of documentation; 4. Medical negligence; and 5. Physical abuse.”

For the most part, the 35 incidents the report documents are not spectacular, headline-grabbing events like shootings or severe beatings. Instead, they point to an insidious pattern of “everyday” abuse that, because it is so frequent, appears to be embedded into the agency’s culture.

A few examples from the report:

  • “A Salvadoran woman, her 10-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son, brother, cousin, and cousin’s daughter, entered the United States on April 17, 2021. They saw a Border Patrol truck arriving and waited for it to arrive so they could ask for asylum. The Border Patrol agent who got out of the truck was enraged. He pulled a gun on the mother and family. He berated them, calling them ‘damned criminals,’ ‘rats,’ ‘terrorists,’ and ‘criminals,’ as they cried and asked for asylum.”
  • “At the Tucson border facility, the [Guatemalan] woman approached an agent asking how they should apply for asylum and informing him that her son has a medical condition and needs medical care. She showed him the documents (a diagnosis, x-rays, etc.) to prove that her son was in need and that he needed surgery within the next two months. The agent took the documents and threw them in the thrash. When she went to retrieve them from the trash, he took them again and told her ‘they belong in the trash.’”
  • “Everyone was asked to walk across the border to Mexico. He [a Guatemalan man] asked the agents why he was being sent to Mexico when he was Guatemalan. An agent hit him with a baton on the knee and threatened to hit him on the head.”
  • “At the Tucson facility, she [a Guatemalan woman] told an agent she was afraid to return to Guatemala and she tried to show documentation of violence, the death certificates of her family members killed by organized crime. The CBP agent told her that her documents were likely fake because she comes from a ‘corrupt’ country.”
  • “The border patrol agents who arrested them were driving a four-wheeler. They drove really fast, right towards the immigrants. The immigrants had to jump out of the way to avoid being run over.”

Though KBI is meticulous about documenting testimonies and filing complaints, the organization sees almost no evidence that CBP and DHS internal affairs or disciplinary mechanisms are functioning. Impunity for these “everyday” abuses is near total:

“Of the thirty-five complaints in this report, none of them resulted in a response to KBI or the complainant about disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators of these abuses. This means agents who attack migrants may still be on the job, repeating these same violations.

Links

  • San Diego-based 9th Circuit Judge Cynthia Bashant ruled September 2 that CBP’s practice of “metering” is unconstitutional. The term refers to posting officers on the borderline to turn back asylum seekers and limit the daily number who may approach a port of entry. The ruling against metering is the result of a suit brought four years ago by Al Otro Lado, a San Diego and Tijuana-based legal services organization (for which WOLA is among several groups that provided declarations). The decision came despite Biden Justice Department lawyers arguing for the ability to keep metering as a policy option, even as they said that the administration was reviewing its use. “The judge said she would issue her decision and then ask for more briefings on how to move forward based on that decision,” the San Diego Union-Tribune had reported. It’s not clear what will change right away, since the Title 42 pandemic policy continues to expel a large number of asylum seekers.
  • Claudia Marcela Peña, a mother from Boyacá, Colombia, flew to Mexico with her two children in late August with the intent of crossing the border to reunite with her husband in the United States. Their smuggler apparently abandoned them in Arizona. Ms. Peña and her oldest child died, most likely of heat exposure. Only her two-year-old child was alive when border agents found them.
  • As growing numbers of Brazilian citizens have been flying to Mexico then being apprehended by Border Patrol, Mexico has started denying entry at its airports to Brazilians whose passports lack a U.S. tourist visa, even when the Brazilians intend to visit Mexico. Researcher Charles Pontes Gomes reports that this is happening about 600 times per month on average.
  • Texas’s state legislature approved $1.8 billion in new spending for National Guard troops, construction of fencing, and stepped-up arrests and imprisonment of undocumented migrants charged with trespassing. “The money is in addition to the $1 billion for border security initiatives approved by lawmakers during this year’s regular legislative session and $250 million in state funding Abbott used to kick-start construction of his border barrier,” reported the Austin American-Statesman. Taken together, that’s about $105 from each of the 29.2 million people residing in Texas. Some Democratic state legislators from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region voted for the money, which funds projects started by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. “I have talked to many of my constituents in Cameron and Hidalgo County… and I can tell you the vast majority of those people want border security and want the wall, believe it or not,” Brownsville State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) told the Texas Tribune.
  • 344 organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter to President Biden and other top officials calling for a halt to deportation flights to Haiti, which since July has endured a presidential assassination, an earthquake, and a tropical storm. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Defense Ministry reported apprehending and deporting 178,000 Haitian citizens in the past 12 months.
  • During a visit to Mexico, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, voiced concern about three U.S. policies: Title 42 expulsions, flights expelling non-Mexicans to southern Mexico, and the court-ordered revival of Remain in Mexico, a program she called “a threat to the asylum system.”

5 links: September 2, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia, Venezuela

The guerrillas pay villagers, including children, to staff narcotics operations, extortion rackets and wildcat gold mines in both countries

El Salvador

Lo aprobado implica una purga a todos aquellos jueces y fiscales mayores de 60 años o con 30 años de servicio

Honduras

The case has set an important and worrying precedent. Honduran authorities charged local leaders defending rivers and a protected natural area with criminal association based on the mining company’s groundless claims

Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s president has created an insular dynastic tyranny that eerily resembles the one against which he fought decades ago

Venezuela

Lamentablemente, la idea de una negociación exitosa también es frágil. La razón: la oposición no lleva ninguna alternativa real a la mesa y su poder de negociación es más bajo

Arms transfers in Latin America: some notable links from the past quarter

August 31, 2021

El Salvador

El Comando Sumpul está a cargo de vigilar 195 puestos de Paso Fronterizo No Habilitado (PFNH) situados a lo largo del país

August 26, 2021

Venezuela

EN 2006 el gobierno venezolano, a través de la Compañía Anónima Venezolana de Industrias Militares (CAVIM), suscribió con Rosoboronexport los contratos para la construcción de una planta de fabricación de armamento

August 25, 2021

El Salvador

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) delivered a Metal Shark Defiant 85 coastal patrol vessel to the Salvadoran Navy (FNES, in Spanish) at La Unión Naval Base, on July 22, 2021

Venezuela

Se vienen ejecutando desde 2006 en las instalaciones de la Compañía Anónima Venezolana de Industrias Militares

July 28, 2021

El Salvador, Honduras

Tanto Honduras como El Salvador necesitarían al menos uno, y óptimamente, dos Desafiante 85 adicionales y, en el caso de El Salvador, uno o dos más modelos FCS-5009/Spa-5009 para mejorar sus patrullas

July 22, 2021

El Salvador

A esta fase se le denomina “Incursión” y pretende duplicar la capacidad humana, alcanzando los 40.000 efectivos militares en los próximos cinco años

June 21, 2021

Venezuela

Warships have “practically absolute sovereign immunity”, says Cornell Overfield of cna, a think-tank, meaning that the United States cannot lawfully seize or attack them

June 18, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

Many Russian C-UAS systems are small and portable, and are relatively inexpensive, enabling their potential export to LATAM

June 3, 2021

Venezuela

El Instituto Naval de EEUU informó este martes 2 de junio que un barco de guerra perteneciente a la Armada de Irán salió de su puerto a finales de abril con siete de barcos de alta velocidad con armamento antiaéreo

June 2, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

Analizamos en estas páginas los próximos programas de aeronaves de ala rotatoria en esta variopinta región

Colombia

Entre 2017 y 2021, 20 entidades estatales suscribieron al menos 30 contratos y dos órdenes de compra por $45.684.261.058 para adquirir armas de letalidad reducida y elementos de dispersión de multitudes

Remain in Mexico plus Title 42 would mean a vicious two-tiered system of asylum denial at the U.S.-Mexico border

With Trump-appointed judges and the Supreme court forcing the Biden administration to re-start the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) program at the border, watch what happens to migrants according to their nationality.

If Remain in Mexico gets implemented at even some of the intensity that it was during the Trump years, and if the Biden administration at the same time continues expelling many migrants—including asylum seekers—under the Title 42 pandemic authority, then something ugly might happen.

Basically, we can group affected migrants into three types of nationalities.

First, citizens of Mexico have always had a hard time making asylum cases in the United States. They weren’t subject to “Remain in Mexico” but were massively expelled back to Mexico after the pandemic measures went into effect in March 2020. Here’s all Mexican citizens encountered at the border, and then those traveling as families (parents with children):

Second, citizens of the “Northern Triangle” countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—were massively placed into “Remain in Mexico.” Then, after March 2020—because Mexico agreed to take most of them—they’ve been massively expelled under Title 42, also. No matter what happens, they’ve had a slim chance at due process when they ask for protection in the United States.

Attorneys who work with expelled migrants tell me that they hear constant horror stories from parents with kids stuck in Mexican border cities about what happens to them at the hands of criminal groups after they’re expelled.

Third, citizens of several other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries were subject to “Remain in Mexico,” and many ended up in Mexican border towns. But they haven’t been expelled in large numbers under Title 42 for logistical or consular reasons.

Mexico won’t take them as expulsions across the land border. It’s expensive to fly them back to their countries of origin, and some of their governments (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela) have poor relations with the United States.

They’re not as much part of this story, but it’s worth mentioning that there are a few other countries, particularly Haiti, whose citizens didn’t have to remain in Mexico, but in some cases have been expelled by air.

In July, 23 percent of migrants—and 31 percent of families—encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries whose citizens weren’t being massively expelled, but would have had to “remain in Mexico” when Trump was president. Right now, few are being expelled.

72 percent of migrants—63 percent of families—were from Mexico and Central America, and still often subject to expulsion under the Title 42 pandemic order.

If they get carried out together right now, Remain in Mexico combined with Title 42 would create a very ugly two-tiered system.

Keep in mind that Title 42 is even worse than Remain in Mexico because it doesn’t even give asylum seekers a court date in the United States. So if the courts force a true restart of Remain in Mexico, nearly one-third of families might get shoved into Mexico with a court date, while most of the rest wouldn’t even get that. That’s a new level of malice.

Unaccompanied children at the border: update through August 30

Here’s some updated data on unaccompanied migrant children.

New arrivals of kids at the US-Mexico border have declined somewhat after sharp growth in July. But more are arriving than were in May-June.

The number of kids in Border Patrol’s child-inadequate holding facilities jumped up in August, but now is back below 1,000.

After a bump in August, the number of kids in the Health and Human Services Department’s network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, is similar to late June. The population stubbornly remains between 14,000 and 15,000 kids.

Last week, HHS discharged more children per day from its shelters, on average, than in any prior week. 594 per day.

Subtract the number of kids discharged by HHS, from the number of unaccompanied kids newly apprehended by Border Patrol, and last week was the third straight week when the population in US government custody declined. That’s good.

Download a 12-megabyte zipfile of all 111 daily reports used to make these graphics, from http://bit.ly/uac_daily. Like this one:

5 links: September 1, 2021

(Even more here)

Mexico

La Sedena también mantiene el control completo de las 32 coordinaciones estatales de la Guardia Nacional, y no solo de su alto mando operativo. Al frente de cada una de dichas coordinaciones esta nombrado un general en activo

The DEA even have a term for it – it is the essential building block of the war on drugs. They call it divide and conquer. But it is the drug wars dirty little secret

Alrededor de las 9 de la mañana, unos 200 agentes llegaron al municipio, rodearon las calles que llevan a la plaza central, y tomaron por sorpresa a hombres, mujeres y niños que descansaban

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

In private, Mexican officials said they are waiting to see how U.S. officials propose to restore “Remain in Mexico,” and whether they have a plan to avoid the aspects of the program’s last iteration when rights groups documented the abuse of returned migrants

U.S.-Mexico Border

Alexander Halaska of Justice’s Office of Immigration Litigation told U.S. District Court Judge Cynthia Bashant that the present administration is reassessing the policies that officials often refer to as “metering,” but which critics call a “turnback” of asylum-seekers

5 links: August 31, 2021

(Even more here)

Brazil

The president, a former army captain, has responded by attacking other branches of government, sowing doubts over election security, and flaunting his increasingly cozy relationship with the armed forces

Colombia

Catatumbo, which still produces more coca – the raw ingredient in cocaine – than just about anywhere else in the world, effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state

Mexico

Mexico’s National Guard seems intent on blocking asylum seekers from leaving Mexico’s poor south, even if it threatens the stability of the region or, worse, might produce a xenophobic and racist eruption

The Zetas proved that via fearsome messaging and brutal tactics, you could control territory and thus secure numerous local criminal rents, even while you vied for action in the international market

U.S.-Mexico Border

The report, which can be read here, details thirty-five cases of violations by CBP agents documented by KBI from October 2020 to mid-August 2021

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