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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Guatemala

WOLA Podcast: A Crucial Moment for Guatemala’s Fight Against Impunity

Guatemala is selecting new supreme court justices. The stakes are very high: fighting the corruption that drives so much migration will be much harder if the country gets this wrong. Here, my colleague Adriana Beltran and I talk to three people who are leading the fight from civil society.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Last year at the US-Mexico border, authorities apprehended more undocumented migrants from Guatemala than from any other country. That’s mostly because of a combination of poverty and violence. That in turn is exacerbated by corruption, which drains national wealth and benefits networks of political and economic power that, too often, are above the law.

People in Guatemala are trying to change that. They’re the ones who made important justice improvements alongside the CICIG, the international commission against impunity in Guatemala, which was ejected from the country last year. They’re still fighting, and this podcast talks to three of them. They are:

  • Helen Mack, the president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. A longtime leader in Guatemala’s fight for human rights, Helen founded her organization in 1993, three years after the army killed her sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack. Helen is one of Guatemala’s principal experts on judicial and police reform.
  • Harald Waxenecker is a sociologist who investigates networks of power and criminality in Guatemala and El Salvador, which is dangerous but necessary work.
  • Claudia Escobar is a former magistrate of Guatemala’s court of appeals who played a central role in some of the country’s most high-profile corruption investigations during the mid-2010s.

They’re together with Adriana Beltran, the principal host of this podcast episode. Beltran is WOLA’s director for citizen security, has worked for many years in Guatemala, and played an instrumental role in building international support for the CICIG.

Guatemala has hit a key turning point for the fight against impunity the Congress is selecting a new slate of supreme court justices. There’s a real danger that some of the country’s most corrupt elements might choose those who will judge them for the next five years. Much is in the balance here: further erosion of the rule of law will mean more misery in Guatemala, and more migration away from Guatemala.

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

Big new report: “The ‘Wall’ Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border”

This map of the Mexico-Guatemala border region displays all locations mentioned in the report. We were present at those in blue during our August 2019 field research visit.

It’s always nice to finish something. Here’s an in-depth account of the situation at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where I joined colleagues for a 400-mile research trip in August. The result is this report, released today.

It’s 15,000 words, is stuffed with photos, and covers the ground outlined below. So pour a beverage and join us on this journey from Tapachula to Tenosique. And here’s the PDF version, which looks nicer.

Contents
Introduction
Mexico Proposes a New Approach to Migration—Then Reverses Itself under U.S. Pressure

* Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border
* U.S.-Mexico Agreement to Curb Migration Flows
* Apprehension Numbers at Mexico’s Southern Border
Mexico’s Security and Migration Deployment in the Border Zone
Migration Patterns and Smuggling

* Shifts in Apprehension and Deportation Trends
* Extra-Continental Migrants
* Shifts in Migration Routes
* Trends in Corridors
The Human Rights Impact of Mexico’s Crackdown
* Detention Facilities
* Crimes against Migrants
* Migrants and the Local Population
Asylum and Detention
* Why Migrants are Fleeing
* Mexico’s Asylum System
* COMAR on the Brink
* Exit visas
* Buses from the Northern Border
Official Corruption in the Border Zone
U.S. Assistance in the Border Region
Conclusions
Recommendations

Some Mexico-Guatemala Border Crossings

I’m back, as of a few hours ago, from a week along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. There’s a lot to talk about – but for now, some photos of border crossings.

Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico – El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico – El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Army wearing armbands of Mexico’s new National Guard at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico – Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Mexico is cracking down (under U.S. pressure) at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico – Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala. Fewer rafts are crossing.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico – La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico – La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Lago Internacional between Chiapas, Mexico and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Lago Internacional between Chiapas, Mexico and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Nuevo Orizaba, Chiapas, Mexico – Ixcán, Quiché, Guatemala.
Nuevo Orizaba, Chiapas, Mexico – Ixcán, Quiché, Guatemala.

80 Homeland Security Agents to Guatemala? New analysis at WOLA’s website

Here’s a short analysis posted to WOLA’s website (Español). It jumps off from last Friday’s Washington Post finding that dozens of CBP and ICE officers may be sent to Guatemala to work as “advisors” at the country’s border with Mexico.

The piece is built around a listing of Homeland Security and Defense Department deployments to Guatemala in recent years, collected from my database. Those have had names like “Operation Citadel,” “Operation Regional Shield,” “Operation Hornet,” “Operation Together Forward,” and several others.

The point is that even if the past deployments brought some results, they made no difference in migrant and drug-smuggling out of Guatemala. And nor will any new 80-person mission.

They failed because Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico is easily crossed at dozens of formal and informal sites. They failed because Guatemala—unlike, say, East Germany—doesn’t prevent citizens from leaving its territory. They failed because migrants fleeing violence and poverty, and the smugglers who charge them thousands for the journey, are adept at avoiding capture. They failed because seeking asylum, as tens of thousands of Guatemalan children and parents are doing each month, is not an illegal act.

They failed, too, because unpunished corruption within Guatemalan and Mexican security and immigration forces works to smugglers’ advantage, undermining the efforts of Homeland Security agents and their counterparts. And in Guatemala, where the government is slamming the door on the CICIG, a much-admired international investigative body, the corruption problem is only getting worse—just as more U.S. agents arrive.

There is no reason to believe that 80 agents, carrying out a similar mission on a somewhat larger scale, might make much of a dent. They will assuredly capture lower-ranking smugglers and block some unfortunate families from leaving. But migrants’ desperation and higher-tier smugglers’ sophistication will remain unchanged. And corruption will continue to erase gains as long as there is no accountability for those on the take. 

Read the whole thing here (Español).

WOLA Podcast on Guatemala’s “backlash of the corrupt”

Only a few years ago, Guatemala was making historic gains in its fight against corruption and human rights abuse. Since then, the country has suffered a severe backlash. A “pact of the corrupt” in Guatemala’s ruling elite keeps pushing legislation that would terminate trials and investigations for war crimes and corruption. A U.S.-backed UN prosecutorial body, the CICIG, has been weakened. High-court rulings are being ignored. Things have gotten so bad that the U.S. government has suspended military aid.

And today, Guatemala has incredibly surpassed Mexico as the number-one nationality of undocumented migrants being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

As a new presidential election looms, Adam talks about the situation with WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, just returned from one of her frequent visits to the country. See more of Jo-Marie’s recent analysis at:

Download the podcast mp3 file directly

A huge setback for civil-military relations in Guatemala

Reuters photo in The Guardian (UK). Caption: “Jimmy Morales addresses the media flanked by military and police.”

I was disappointed to see Guatemala’s military—which had briefly taken a reformist direction—aggressively, enthusiastically supporting President Jimmy Morales’s crackdown on the CICIG anti-corruption body. WOLA has just posted a piece I wrote about that. What’s happened with Guatemala’s army since August 31 obliterates a few halting steps that it had taken toward being a credible, accountable institution. It brings back the bad old days.

Here’s an excerpt. The whole thing is here.

In the widest-angle photo available online of Morales’s defiant August 31 announcement, 75 people appear in the frame, including Morales. Sixty-eight of them are in uniform; at least fifteen wear the maroon beret of the Army’s feared Kaibiles Special Forces. The clear message: the high command supports Morales’s move against the CICIG in the strongest terms. Sixty officers standing behind the president is more than just checking a box to comply with an order from the commander in chief.

Even more blatant was a show of military force outside CICIG’s headquarters on the morning of the 31st. A convoy of military transport vehicles, helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets, drove through the CICIG’s prosperous, well-guarded Guatemala City neighborhood and circulated several times around its offices. Vehicles pulled up outside the U.S. embassy and those of other countries known to support CICIG, and near the homes and offices of prominent human rights defenders.

These vehicles were donated to Guatemala through U.S. Defense Department accounts legally authorized only to help the military and police interdict drugs or combat organized crime. Some bear the title “Trinational Task Force,” denoting a unit, created with U.S. assistance, meant to operate at Guatemala’s borders, far from the capital. At four points along Guatemala’s borders, military-police-prosecutorial Interagency Task Forces, created with over US$40 million in aid from the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, have been operating since 2013. The Pentagon has provided them with hundreds of vehicles like these.

…Unless something changes soon, the Guatemalan armed forces’ aggressive support for Jimmy Morales’s rollback of anti-corruption reforms has set their institution on a path back to its darkest periods. It extinguishes a hopeful moment in which Guatemala’s Army, with U.S. government accompaniment, took a few halting steps toward legitimacy.

It goes on like that.

The Army’s Role in the Anti-CICIG Backlash is a Severe Setback for Guatemala’s Civil-Military Relations

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America

Marco Bello photo for Reuters. Caption: “Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017.”

Argentina

  • Outgoing Defense Minister Julio Martínez alleged that the previous governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández so neglected the country’s air force that “over a hundred [aircraft] went out of service or were decommissioned.”

Brazil

  • Brazilian Army soldiers, long tasked with guarding the country’s 10,400-mile land border, are increasingly being used as police. “During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets—double the number from the previous nine years combined,” according to an Economist report with an interesting map.

Colombia

  • The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has notified Colombia that she has her eye on 23 active and retired generals, and 6 colonels, who may bear responsibility for extrajudicial executions. The list, based on cases in five regions, includes the current chief of the armed forces, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez.
  • The mayor of Antioquia, Colombia—the department (province) whose capital is Medellín—is moving forward with a proposal to install retired army colonels as “vice-mayors” of historically conflictive towns. Local human rights groups are opposing the idea.

Cuba

  • American University’s William Leogrande takes down the claim—repeated by proponents of the Trump administration’s tightening of commerce with Cuba—that the Cuban military controls 60 percent of the country’s economy. “Sectors in which the military has little or no participation easily comprise more than half of GDP, and in the other sectors, there are civilian as well as military-controlled firms.”

Ecuador

  • 3,000 members of Ecuador’s armed forces have been deployed to play an anti-crime role in the western provinces of Guayas, Manabí, and Los Ríos. They are mostly searching vehicles at road checkpoints, looking for weapons or other signs of organized crime activity.

Guatemala

  • At NACLA, David Unger summarizes a surprising book by an active-duty Guatemalan colonel. Col. Edgar Rubio Castañeda’s “Desde el Cuartel” (From the Barracks) is a blistering critique of the country’s inequality, the oligarchy that benefits from it, and the military’s role in propping it up.

Mexico

  • Top brass in Mexico’s armed forces have been issuing pointed messages about ethics in politics. Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos called for more effort against corruption and impunity, which he said have “damaged our society.” Navy Minister Adm. Vidal Soberón said that human rights violations are “contrary to every definition of our reason for being” and “will never be tolerated.” However, the investigative website Animal Político reported that prosecutors failed to act on at least five anonymous tips that a local Army captain was tied to the drug-trafficking group (Guerreros Unidos) that massacred 43 students in Iguala, Mexico in September 2014.

Venezuela

  • At least 123 members of all branches of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since daily anti-government protests began in April. According to Reuters, “nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.” The majority are being held in the Ramo Verde military prison where opposition leader Leopoldo López was interned until this past weekend.
  • From his cell, López recorded a video urging military personnel to “rebel” against orders to repress protesters. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that “an air of change” can be felt within Venezuela’s armed forces, but not the National Guard. “A very important decision is coming from the components of our armed forces,” Capriles added.

Just released: our latest report on the Mexico-Guatemala border

Report cover

Maureen Meyer, Hannah Smith, and I spent the third week of February in and around Tenosique, Mexico. We were in Mexico’s far south, by the border with Petén, Guatemala. We visited migrant shelters, which were busy, though emptier than before Trump’s inauguration. We heard grim accounts of the violence Central Americans were fleeing. We spoke to authorities about security, attacks on migrants, and U.S. aid programs.
 
And we published this big report today. It is our third deep-dive since 2014 on conditions at Mexico’s southern border. (See 2014 and 2015.)

Three years later, the La 72 shelter we saw in February 2017 was much different. Not only is it larger—with the support of donations and the UNHCR, Fray Tomás and his staff have built new dormitories, a health post, and other facilities to meet demand—it looked like a day-care center.
Children raced around paved courtyards and walkways, playing tag and make-believe. (As they ran past, a six-year-old confronted by a smaller child waving a stick like a saber conjured a “wall of Donald Trump” as an imaginary shield.) Babies and toddlers sat on their mothers’ laps. Teenagers played basketball, flirted, and stood around a muralsized map of Mexico and its train lines. (Three of them told us that they were going to try entering the United States via Mexicali, one of the farthest possible routes, on the unfounded belief that they faced a lower risk of being robbed or kidnapped.) Entire families, some with elderly relatives, sat at tables, talking and fanning themselves in the shade. Between 2014 and 2016, the number of children (both accompanied and unaccompanied) apprehended by INM agents in the state of Tabasco increased by 60 percent.

Links from the last month about: civil-military relations in Latin America

Municipality of Jocotán photo at Southern Command’s Diálogo website. Caption: “Students from a rural school in the municipality of Jocotán, Chiquimula, thank the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers for the desks they donated to their school.”

Argentina

A pro-military group posted a list of journalists and others who have testified in human rights cases against leaders of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, calling them “subversive terrorists from the 1970s.”

Brazil

A brief and ill-advised use of soldiers against protestors “shocked a capital already shaken by the day’s violence” and brought back memories of the 1964-85 military government. See also: Eduardo Goncalves, Forcas Armadas Sao Usadas Contra Protestos Pela 2ª Vez (Veja (Brazil), May 25, 2017).

Colombia

Gen. Luis Felipe Montoya, an active-duty officer, has been training with foreign “friends of the process” to take a more active role in the Colombian government’s stalled peace talks with the ELN guerrilla group.

Guatemala

The Southern Command-run publication asks the chief of Guatemala’s joint staff, “When will the Armed Forces stop supporting the National Civil Police?” The answer: “In the coming year, if not sooner.”

Guatemala’s army is fulfilling a presidential order “to restore 8,000 kilometers of roads within the shortest possible time.”

An active-duty colonel wrote a book recognizing some of the Guatemalan military’s civil war-era crimes and alignment with the country’s small elite. The author speculates that this could be a step toward cracking open the armed forces’ “pact of silence.”

Mexico

Soldiers in the state of Tamaulipas, where Mexico’s Army and Navy are in frequent firefights with criminal groups, write a letter asking to be pulled off the streets because “we’ve had enough of killing hitmen.” It voices rage at human rights NGOs and the government because “nobody says anything” when their comrades are killed.

Mexico’s Defense Ministry (headed by an active-duty general) has begun freezing out La Jornada, a left-leaning Mexico City daily, leaving it off its mailing list for press releases and events.

Venezuela

A few glimpses into one of Venezuela’s main “black boxes”: attitudes in the military. “Soldiers’ families suffers along with protesters who skip meals while watching their money become worthless. Some are unsure whether to blame the government or the opposition for the crisis, and what soldiers decide in the coming months could decide the country’s fate.” See also: Venezuela’s Defense Chief Warns Guardsmen on Excessive Force (Associated Press, June 8, 2017) and Girish Gupta, Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela Jailed 14 Army Officers for Dissent at Start of Protests: Documents (Reuters, June 6, 2017).

Human rights defenders are denouncing Venezuela’s new practice of trying civilians in military courts for their role in political protests.

Lo ocurrido en Palmarito no debe repetirse porque independientemente de la violación de derechos humanos y la urgente redefinición de la política de seguridad interna, polariza a nuestra sociedad

May 15, 2017

Mexico

El Ejército debe respetar el marco legal. Si no lo hace, si no respeta las leyes, si ignora la Constitución, se convierte en un Ejército asesino. Punto

WOLA Podcast: The Central America Monitor

Congress appropriated $750 million in aid for Central America for 2016, and $655 million more for 2017. What’s in these aid packages? Which countries are getting what? What do U.S.-funded programs propose to do? Are they achieving their goals?

Next Wednesday (May 17) my colleague Adriana Beltrán, who runs WOLA’s Citizen Security program will join some partners from the region to launch the “Central America Monitor,” an effort to answer these questions.

This looks like a very cool project, collecting a lot of data both to document aid and to try to measure its results in the region. I talk to her about it here.

WOLA Podcast: “Human Rights Trials in Guatemala”

Here’s a conversation with WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, a professor of political science at George Mason University. Since 2012 Jo-Marie has closely monitored Guatemala’s judicial effort to hold military personnel accountable for crimes against humanity that they committed or ordered during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war. Despite some often severe pushback, prosecutors, investigators, and civil society are making progress.

Jo-Marie posts frequent updates about Guatemala’s human rights trials to the Open Society Justice Initiative’s International Justice Monitor website at www.ijmonitor.org/category/guatemala-trials/.

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