You hear a lot about the popularity of El Salvador’s authoritarian-trending president, Nayib Bukele, who has overseen an anti-gang “state of exception” that has jailed more than 1 percent of the country’s population since March 2022.
The result has been a sharp drop in violent crime that has people throughout the Americas saying “we need a Bukele here.” But there’s a dark side that’s evident to all who care enough not to look away.
One who’s not looking away is filmmaker Amada Torruella, whose short film “La Isla” appears today on the website of the New Yorker. It’s about the family of a man who authorities took away during a sweep early in the state of emergency, even though the part of coastal El Salvador where he lives does not have a significant gang presence.
The subjects of Torruella’s film are all female—the wives, mothers, and sisters of the men who have been arrested and sent to prison. “We had just come back from doing some shopping,” one of them says, “when suddenly an officer from the Armed Forces approached him.” She sits on a tidy bed in a small house, sifting through legal papers; her partner has been gone eighteen days. “It’s a lie,” she says, of the government’s accusation. Five months later, she’s still not heard anything from him.
Even though El Salvador’s homicide rate is now purported to be nearly as low as Denmark’s, there is no end in sight to the “state of exception” limiting basic rights, which has been renewed 18 times by Bukele’s legislative supermajority. As Bukele heads for re-election next year even though the country’s laws forbid it, he at least needs to end the pain of thousands of innocents caught up in his sweeps.
If a drug-funded armed group on the U.S. government’s terrorist list forces thousands of family farmers off their land, can companies who bought that land just a few years later really claim to have done so “in good faith?”
Marta Ruiz, a journalist who served as a commissioner of Colombia’s Truth Commission, asked that question in a September 10 column at the Colombian news site La Silla Vacía. She was writing about the Montes de María, a region near the country’s Caribbean coast where small farmers struggled to win titles to their lands, only to be massively displaced by an early 2000s scorched-earth campaign, including a string of notoriously bloody massacres, by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC were a paramilitary network—on the State Department’s terrorist list between 2001 and 2013—that colluded with large landowners, narcotraffickers, and elements of Colombia’s armed forces.
In late August, Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited El Salado, a village in the Montes de María known for a grisly 2000 massacre. There, he called out Argos, a cement company that is one of Colombia’s largest corporations. (Argos USA’s website calls it “the most sustainable company in the industry.”) Marta Ruiz reported that Petro said:
“Argos took the land of the displaced, I am not going to accuse them of the massacre, but they benefited from the fruit of the massacre and the blood.” The company immediately responded by arguing its good faith in the purchase of 6,600 hectares in the municipalities of Carmen and Ovejas.
Ruiz’s column then recounts the recent history of this troubled region, which is less than two hours’ drive from Cartagena. First, the land-tenure struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the subject of many histories and academic studies in Colombia.
Populated by mestizos, indigenous people and Afros, it was the scene of strong agrarian struggles against unproductive large estates throughout the 20th century. In fact, it was the site chosen by [1966-1970 president] Carlos Lleras Restrepo to launch the ANUC [government-sanctioned small-farmers’ organization] and his agrarian reform, with much more radical speeches than Petro’s against the rentier landowners and landlords. In those years, many peasant families obtained plots of land of a maximum of 12 hectares, and others after 1994 when, with Law 160, land adjudication resumed.
Then, the paramilitary onslaught of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which reversed so many farmers’ hard-won gains.
By the mid-1990s, the FARC-EP—which were already in the region—became very strong in the mountains, and from there they tried to dominate the entire region. The ranchers, tired of kidnapping and extortion, demanded that [top AUC leader] Carlos Castaño send his army of thugs to that part of the Caribbean. But since a war is expensive and they were not going to finance it, it was obvious that drug traffickers, who eventually became owners of immense lands in the region’s lowlands and coastal areas, would have to enter the war, thus consolidating their illicit trade routes.
…Then came the “expediting” of massacres. First was Pichilín, a small village high in the mountains between Colosó and Morroa. Everyone left there, except one old man who ended up talking to the trees. Then followed Macayepo, Chengue, El Salado, Las Brisas, Capaca, Los Guaimaros… I can go on until I fill the page with more than 50 names of villages that were razed to the ground. Between 2000 and 2005 at least one million peasants in the Caribbean region were displaced and lost their land. In Carmen de Bolivar alone, once a prosperous town, 80 percent of the rural inhabitants were exiled.
The AUC went through a sort of demobilization process in the mid-2000s. By then, for a time, the armed forces became the major human rights violators in the Montes de María.
After the demobilization of the AUC…there was a time of extrajudicial executions, disappearances, dispossessions and mass arrests. The latter were a nefarious practice of the public forces because they were based on biased intelligence, based on the stigmatization of entire towns such as Ovejas, where 130 people were arrested in a single day. Between paramilitaries, guerrillas and security forces, a century’s worth of campesino organization was almost wiped out.
In 2007 the final “battle” took place with a bombing where [top regional FARC leader] Martín Caballero died. Thus the guerrillas were annihilated in that region.
President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) oversaw military operations that weakened the FARC, and also oversaw a negotiation process that demobilized the paramilitaries in exchange for light jail sentences. Uribe had the full support of large landowners and business elites, who moved rapidly into the lands abandoned by the small farmers of the Montes de María.
Meanwhile, President Uribe and his closest circle encouraged his countrymen in Medellín and Envigado to buy land and invest in Montes de María.
…The consolidation of Democratic Security [Uribe’s signature security policy] would be done hand in hand with businessmen, and the military committed themselves to the construction of a road that would join the Magdalena River with the Caribbean Sea: the Montes de María transverse road. And they did it. Thus, the counterinsurgency strategy contained an anti-peasant bias which, aligned with a certain vision of development, assured that Colombia’s progress depended on businessmen’s money rather than on the regions’ human capital.
What happened next was a “reverse land reform” throughout the mid-2000s to the early 2010s.
The massive purchase of land was done at a surprising speed and with all kinds of trickery… The businessmen had access to these databases [of forcibly displaced farmers’ delinquent mortgages] and set themselves the task of looking for the displaced in the poverty belts of Sincelejo, Cartagena, and Barranquilla to ask them, through trickery, half-truths and deceit, for the transfer of their titles… The intermediaries took the land and in exchange left the campesinos with despair, fear, lack of protection and defeat. It was an express agrarian counter-reform.
It is a legend, but absolutely true, that in order to consummate this operation, notary offices worked 24 hours a day for several weeks. It was necessary to accelerate because another part of the state’s institutional framework, the one that was trying to return displaced people, announced the protection of the lands and the prohibition of their sale until the circumstances in which these transactions took place were verified.
Of the business organizations that bought up all of the land vacated after the paramilitary onslaught, Argos is the best known.
In the midst of such a panorama, Argos bought its first land in San Onofre, Sucre, a municipality where the feared [regional paramilitary leader] Rodrigo Cadena had his headquarters. The company was obliged to compensate for the environmental damage caused by its cement activity by planting forests. Thanks to a forestry incentive law, this compensation became a business: planting teak, a fine and very expensive wood, which has an assured international market… The land was cheap because in their exodus, people left the land. Argos decided not only to stay but to expand to other municipalities and that is when it set its eyes on El Carmen, Ovejas, etc.
Courts, Ruiz noted, have cast doubt on Argos’s claims to have been unaware of the violent dispossession that took place in the lands they purchased, just a few years earlier.
The courts have said that Argos did not comply with the due diligence expected of a multinational company that is listed on the world’s major stock exchanges; that is among the five most powerful groups in the country; and that to top it off is part of global pacts for good human rights practices. According to the judges, it is unlikely that a company of its size and capacity would be unaware of the context in which the land purchases and sales took place, let alone their implications.
Ruiz credits Argos for steps that it has since taken: “once the Victims Law was approved  and the massive purchases scandal became a reputational risk, the business group cancelled its project in those municipalities. It created the Fundación Crecer en Paz, which remains under its tutelage for the management of the 6,600 hectares already acquired.” Farmers have recovered some of the land.
That is more than can be said of other opportunistic investors who benefited, indirectly or directly, from paramilitary violence in the Montes de María. Still, “it is a pity that Argos maintains its anachronistic discourse about the ‘good faith’ that led it to these purchases, instead of gallantly recognizing that its actions were opportunistic and encouraged dispossession. It should ask for forgiveness.”
After all, “Montes de María was not a wasteland in need of corporate colonization as was said in certain circles in Medellín. It was home to many people who had fought fervently to be there.”
These are just a few highlights of a great column about a chapter of Colombia’s conflict that shows what a lot of the fighting was actually about: the strong taking advantage of a crisis to seize land and wealth from the weak.
The U.S. officials who adhered Washington so closely to the project of Álvaro Uribe and his allies—giving him effusive praise, billions in aid, and even the Medal of Freedom—can claim, too, that they were acting in good faith. But they enabled a good deal of harm.
In March 2022, Colombia’s Army staged an early-morning attack on a large, hung-over gathering of participants in a “community bazaar”—including a few armed-group members, who fired back—in a rural zone of Putumayo, in the country’s south. The soldiers killed several civilians, including a pregnant woman and an Indigenous community leader.
Top defense officials in the government of President Iván Duque insisted that the troops did nothing wrong and that no human rights or international humanitarian law violations took place. Colombian journalistic investigations found otherwise.
Colombia’s civilian Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) looked into the case, and agreed with the journalists. The Colombian magazine Cambioreported on August 20:
the Prosecutor’s Office deployed an interdisciplinary team that included ballistics experts, forensic doctors, topographers and prosecutors from its Human Rights Unit. The material collected, as CAMBIO was able to verify, reveals that the indigenous governor Pablo Paduro died as a result of a rifle shot by one of the uniformed officers and that the weapon found near his body was never fired or manipulated by him, but was planted on him with the intention of diverting the investigation. In addition, there is incontestable evidence: the dead were 11 and the weapons found were 5, so at least 6 of them did not have the means to shoot at the Army.
The prosecutors, though, are being held up by delaying tactics. Defense attorneys for the accused military personnel made a last-minute appeal to have the case heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The military system is meant for disciplinary infractions (“acts of service”), not human rights abuses; when it does get jurisdiction over a crime against civilians, it almost never convicts. For such cases, it is an impunity factory.
Cambio explained the legal machinations:
The indictment hearing was scheduled for the first days of August, but in an unexpected decision, the 106th judge of Military Criminal Instruction of Puerto Leguízamo [Putumayo] accepted the request of the soldiers’ lawyers and sent the process to the Constitutional Court to resolve a jurisdictional conflict. The judge’s decision has been criticized because a month after the operation, in May 2022, the same Military Criminal Court sent the process to the Prosecutor’s Office, arguing that the possible human rights violations could not be considered acts of service.
The Constitutional Court has yet to decide whether the Alto Remanso massacre case will go to the military justice system, where justice is unlikely, or the civilian system, where prosecutors and investigators have done thorough work and are ready to go. Colleagues at Human Rights Watch just sent an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court asking it to slap down the military attorneys’ gambit, and move the case back to the civilian justice system.
The military attorneys may be happy just to run out the clock. Cambio warns, “For now, the legal process is suspended and waiting for the Constitutional Court to define the conflict of competences. The clock is ticking, and the ghost of the statute of limitations’ expiration is haunting the investigators’ work.”
As I noted earlier today, I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.
I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.
In some new findings, Militarized Transformation reveals official data showing that the military isn’t even reporting its arrests of civilians to civilian security authorities and oversight bodies. The report updates and group together various indicators regarding the justice system and respect for fundamental rights by the security forces, with a focus on the armed forces and the National Guard, as well as the differentiated impacts and situations faced by women. And it makes a series of short-term and long-term recommendations for needed reforms.
This podcast episode features the report’s principal author, Stephanie Brewer, WOLA’s director for Mexico. Brewer discusses the report’s main findings, conclusions, and recommendations, along with a general view of Mexico’s democracy, civil-military relations, and U.S. policy.
“We recognize militarization is is the reality we’re currently working in,” Brewer concludes. “But while that’s going on, what possible reason could there be for the country to want the armed forces not to be operating under effective civilian control or not to be transparent about things like their use of force? Or not to be fully giving information to Congress? That would have to be something that that is in everybody’s interest in the short term.”
Border Patrol is once again keeping hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants outdoors, without even bathroom facilities, for one to two days between the double layers of the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana.
The last time we saw this practice, in May, it generated an outcry, including a letter from Democratic members of Congress and a complaint filed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
The camp is in San Ysidro, between the primary and secondary border walls. Migrants there sleep outside with little protection from the elements. There are no bathrooms, leaving men, women and children to relieve themselves in nearby bushes.
…Customs and Border Patrol personnel give the migrants water bottles, cheese and crackers. Everything else comes from volunteers in San Diego and Tijuana, according to several migrants interviewed by KPBS.
Volunteers provided fruits, blankets, medicine, diapers, menstrual pads and generators to charge people’s phones.
…Migrants interviewed in the camp Tuesday told KPBS that they were not free to leave the camp whenever they wished. All of them had wristbands given to them by CBP personnel. Many of the people in the camp want to pursue asylum claims in the United States.
Volunteers told California Public Radio that the migrants are spending between 24 and 36 hours in the camp before agents pick them up for processing. In the meantime, they must relieve themselves in bushes between the fence lines.
Border Patrol claims that they are facing capacity challenges. These challenges are certain to increase as numbers of migrants, many of them asylum seekers, have been growing since July and may continue to grow into the fall. If that happens, and if Border Patrol is allowed to keep using the space between the walls as an open-air pen, then the wait times will get longer.
Many of the asylum seekers have given up on waiting for the “CBP One” smartphone app to cough up an appointment. Enrique Lucero, the director of Tijuana’s municipal migrant affairs office, told the local El Imparcial “there are between 5,500 and 6,000 migrants in city government-recognized shelters, who are waiting to obtain a CBP One appointment to begin their asylum process in a way that is safe and ordered by the United States.”
At the San Ysidro port of entry, CBP is taking 385 CBP One appointments per day—16 times smaller than the officially known portion of Tijuana’s migrant shelter population—plus maybe 10 more “walk-ups,” according to an August 31 report from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center.
In its latest annual report, the UK-based group Global Witness counted 177 murders of environmental defenders worldwide last year. And 156 of them happened in Latin America.
Colombia tops the global ranking with 60 murders in yet another dire year for the country. This is almost double the number of killings compared to 2021, when 33 defenders lost their lives. Once again, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities, small-scale farmers and environmental activists have been viciously targeted.
In 2022, voters in Brazil and Colombia elected leaders who lean hard into pro-environment rhetoric. That may not mean daily life is any safer for those countries’ beleaguered communities trying to defend forests and other resources. Next year’s numbers, though, absolutely must go down. This is inexcusable.
For many of us, the Chilean coup changed the way we thought—and still think—about the United States. It also sparked the creation of new organizations dedicated to educating and promoting a human rights framework for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
Emily Bregel published a terrific story at the Arizona Daily Star about our August 2 report, with the Kino Border Initiative, about abuse and accountability at Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol.
Bregel got comment about our findings from CBP, former CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, and the offices of Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Sen. Mark Kelly, among others.
And she had a great conversation with my co-author on the report, Zoe Martens of the Kino Border Initiative:
At Kino, Martens offered to help the man file a complaint about the violation of his right to request asylum. She explained he likely wouldn’t get justice in his case, but that documenting it could help improve the system for others. The man quickly agreed, saying, “Don’t worry — we’re used to lack of justice in our own country,” Martens recalled.
The comment stuck with her.
“These are our U.S. accountability systems. I think we’d assume they are more effective than in places where we know impunity is widespread,” as in Mexico, she said. “We must, and we can, do better.”
A new “Child Alert” from UNICEF shows how downright medieval conditions are becoming for Latin America’s region-wide exodus. “Today, the largest group of migrant children consists of children below 11 years old – accounting for up to 91 per cent of children on the move at some key transit points.”
A three-year-old Venezuelan girl died on August 10 aboard one of the buses that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has contracted to take asylum-seeking migrants from his state’s border areas to cities run by Democratic mayors—in the case of this bus, to Chicago.
On September 6, the coroner of Marion County, Illinois, where Jismary Alejandra Barboza Gonzalez’s bus was passing through when she died of “bacterial Shigella Flexneri Colitis and Aspiration Pneumonia,” put out a statement about the event.
Juxtaposing that document with the August 11 account of Texas’s Department of Emergency Management shows a confusing discrepancy about the child’s symptoms when Texas officials placed her and her parents aboard a bus. See the highlighted text below.
“The Mexican government is giving more and more power to institutions known precisely for their lack of transparency, and it is doing so without adequate civilian controls, in a process that will be difficult to reverse,” warns a report published today by my colleagues in WOLA’s Mexico Program.
Ernesto López Portillo of the Universidad Iberoamericana Citizen Security Program, writing at Elefante Blanco, echoed those concerns:
The total operational deployment of military personnel for public security in 2023 exceeds the total number of state and municipal police. The news is unprecedented in contemporary Mexico.
…The total operational deployment of military personnel for public security already amounts to 261,644, while state and municipal police forces total 251,760.
A real honor to be invited to do a Q&A with one of my top can’t-miss-an-article websites about what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Border Chronicle, and its co-founder Todd Miller, author of some essential books about border security and human rights.
We talk in depth about WOLA’s recent report, with the Kino Border Initiative, on CBP and Border Patrol abuse and accountability at the U.S.-Mexico border. Why we did the report, what it found, what we recommend, and what happens next. Read it at the Border Chronicle.