I thought it would be a good idea to record a few podcasts with colleagues at WOLA to talk about what this U.S. presidential transition means for Washington’s relations with Latin America. Here’s the first of what should be a series of four: more of an overall view of what Biden can do in a context of diminished U.S. standing and credibility in the region.
The United States is in the transition period between the Biden and Trump administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.
The shift will be sharp in some ways, at least—but not across the board: even amid a changed tone, there may be some surprising continuities. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.
It’s a complex moment. Discussing it in this episode are WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristin Martinez-Gugerli.
This is the first of a few discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. In coming weeks we plan to cover migration and border security; anti-corruption; and the state of human rights and democracy.
This was a hard one to write, it took about two and a half weeks to crank out 3,000 words, even though nearly all the research was already in my database.
The main reason is in the middle of it: the bulleted list of CBP and Border Patrol offenses that have happened so far in 2020, which I copy below.
It was just so damn grim and painful to point out the horrors being committed on U.S. soil, by a U.S. agency, by people who—for the most part—we’d probably genuinely like if we met them at a bar or on line at a supermarket.
Beyond this list, the commentary is about the big challenges that lie ahead in changing the organizational culture of our border and migration agencies. Please read it.
While past abuses like “family separation” and “kids in cages” shocked much of the nation, evidence of a perverse institutional culture persists in the 2020 calendar year.
In January, CBP and ICE agents assigned to serve as advisors in Guatemala ended up packing hundreds of Honduran migrants into rented, unmarked vans and shipping them back to Honduras, without even an opportunity to seek asylum. An October report by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff found that DHS lied to the State Department, which was funding the CBP and ICE presence in Guatemala, about the bizarre operational role its agents were playing.
In February, a Guatemalan woman reported that while she was in Border Patrol custody, agents ignored her requests for medical attention. As a result, she had togive birth with her pants on, while standing and clutching the side of a trash can in the Chula Vista, California Border Patrol station. She was sent to a nearby hospital, then returned to the Border Patrol station where she spent a night “without an adequate blanket for the baby.”
Since March, Border Patrol agents and CBP officers summarily expelled more than 150,000 Mexican and Central American migrants back into Mexico, usually in about 90 minutes or less, with no real opportunity to request asylum if they were fleeing lethal threats. This has been done in the name of COVID-19 protections, but we now know—thanks to AP and Wall Street Journal investigators—that the Centers for Disease Control had recommended against closing the border, only to be overruled by Vice President Mike Pence.
That number includes 8,800 children apprehended while unaccompanied by an adult, then swiftly returned to their home countries while unaccompanied, between March and August. (September data are still pending.) Border agencies made zero effort to ensure these children’s safety upon expulsion or even track their whereabouts. Those to be flown back were warehoused in border-city hotels, guarded by an ICE contractor not certified for childcare, while awaiting their expulsion.
In June the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that CBP had broken the law. A year earlier, Congress had appropriated money for the agency to improve its care of children and families in its custody, paying for items like blankets, food, and medicine. Instead, CBP spent much of the humanitarian appropriation on items like computer network upgrades, vaccines for CBP personnel, dog food, and dirt bikes.
In June, elite Border Patrol agents were among DHS personnel sent to Portland, Oregon—against the wishes of the mayor and governor—to confront protesters following the killing of George Floyd. While some protesters were violent, the agents’ crowd control tactics—which included grabbing people off of sidewalks into unmarked vans—did nothing to de-escalate the situation, nor did they incorporate best practices for de-escalation. If anything, their aggressive tactics prolonged the confrontations.
In July in El Paso, a Border Patrol agentran over a 29-year-old Mexican man while pursuing him in his vehicle. Though injured, the migrant was deported within 48 hours. Border Patrol refuses to make public its vehicle pursuit policy.
In July, Maria Cristina Vargas Espinosa, a 38-year-old mother from Guanajuato, Mexico, died after falling from the border wall west of El Paso. She was at least the second person to die of such a fall this year: a pregnant Guatemalan woman and her unborn baby died of a fall in Clint, Texas, in March. Neither Border Patrol nor other local authorities disclosed Ms. Vargas’s death orbothered to investigate it; her relatives in Mexico only learned of her fate from her smuggler. Asked by El Paso Matters how often such incidents happen, a Border Patrol agent said that “a large number of people…get major injuries.” His main concern, though, was that “those hospital bills are ridiculous.”
In July in Arizona, dozens of rifle-bearing Border Patrol agents, accompanied by an armored vehicle and helicopters,raided a desert camp run on private land by No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in an area where thousands of migrants have died in this century of dehydration and exposure. Agents arrested migrants receiving medical attention, seized phones, photos, and records, and “trashed” No More Deaths’ camp.
In July, the libertarian publication Reasonrevealed a 2012 internal affairs report indicating that a CBP instructor had told “a room full of supervisors” that “if Border Patrol agents feel threatened by a migrant, they should ‘beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out.’” This was yet another appearance of the word “tonk” or “tonc,” Border Patrol slang for an undocumented migrant. Former agents say that the word originates from the sound a human skull makes when clubbed with an agent’s heavy Maglite flashlight. When an agent uses a weapon, he or she must file a memo about the incident; no paperwork is required for flashlights.
By August, only four Border Patrol agents, of unknown rank, had been fired for their involvement in a graphically offensive Facebook group. The group, “I’m 10-15,” whose members included 9,500 current and former agents, was revealed to exist a full year earlier. Twelve months after launching an investigation, “CBP has provided little new information about” the group “or its efforts to address toxic attitudes within the ranks,” reported ProPublica, the outlet that revealed the group’s existence.
In August Tianna Spears, a Black U.S. diplomat who had been assigned to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, published a lengthy account in Politico about the blatant racial profiling to which CBP officers subjected her whenever she crossed back into El Paso. “[O]fficers in primary inspection still made sarcastic comments, cruel jokes and belittling jabs implying I was not a U.S. diplomat, not a U.S. citizen and had stolen my own car.”
In September Border Patrol used taxpayer money to produce a video depicting a fictionalized Spanish-speaking migrant whose first action after eluding agents is to kill a man in a dark alley. With evidence pointing to lower crime rates among undocumented migrants than among the general population, “The Gotaway” video reinforces racist stereotypes to which, we hope, most Border Patrol personnel do not actually subscribe.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, local media in El Paso and Arizona have reported about CBP officers and Border Patrol agents going unmasked in their interactions with the public, from checkpoint encounters to the July raid on No More Deaths.
CBP’s rapid border wall construction is doing permanent environmental damage: gouging at mountains, draining a fragile desert oasis to mix cement, and sealing animals’ migratory routes. Members of Indigenous communities have been arrested for carrying out civil disobedience against the construction in California and Arizona. But the building continues, with no meaningful engagement with affected communities.
While ICE is not the focus of this analysis, any discussion of this year would be incomplete without recalling allegations of non-consensual surgeries performed on women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia; the deportation of a woman alleging sexual abuse at the El Paso detention facility while investigations were ongoing; the storing of children and families in border-town hotel rooms under questionable supervision; a slipshod, hardline response to COVID-19 that has led to a cumulative total of 6,541 cases in detention, deportations of COVID-19-positive individuals to countries with weak public health systems; and a sharp increase this year in the use of pepper spray and other force against the agency’s detainees.
Beyond all of this are the everyday allegations of racial profiling, roughing up (called “tuning up”) of apprehended migrants, abusive language, maintenance of hieleras and other deliberately uncomfortable custody conditions, and a view that people exercising their legal right to seek asylum are, in President Trump’s words, “scammers” gaming the system.
In case you missed it, three shocking reports released between September 14 and September 24 document abuse, neglect, and dehumanization in ICE’s network of mostly privately run migrant detention centers.
September 14: a whistleblower at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, run by LaSalle Corrections, filed a complaint alleging inadequate medical care, poor COVID-19 protections, and—most shockingly, though not as clearly documented—hysterectomies or other non-consensual medical procedures performed on women. Project South, an advocacy group, compiled and submitted the complaint from Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the facility.
September 21: The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee published a staff report based on visits to eight ICE facilities and interviews with 400 detainees over a year. It finds deficient medical care, abuse of solitary confinement as a form of retaliation, difficulty accessing legal and translation services, and unsanitary conditions.
September 24: The House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee published a staff report based on a 14-month investigation of for-profit contractors operating ICE detention centers. Among its horrifying findings: “several detainees died after receiving inadequate medical care, including issues that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detention contractors had previously identified.”
Though activists will tell you “it’s always been like this,” these reports reinforce the sense that our country is slipping into a new age of barbarism. Thanks to these official and non-governmental investigators for their unflinching look into ICE’s opaque and mostly unnecessary network of privatized human suffering.
Over the next few weeks I expect to use this space to think some things through in a series of bite-sized but connected posts. I’m going to start with the reality of forced coca eradication and the Colombian government’s larger plan for the millions who live in rural zones where illicit crops and armed groups predominate.
One such zone especially got me thinking: the Guayabero River region in Meta and Guaviare departments, in south-central Colombia about 200 miles south, and 20 hours’ drive, from Bogotá. (I’ve been near here—but not quite this far south—when working on this 2009 report.) In early June and again in early August, this zone saw strong confrontations between coca-growing farmers and security forces.
The main military unit operating in the Guayabero is the Omega Joint Task Force, which has received heavy U.S. assistance since its founding in 2003. Its current commander (who has threatened legal action against local human rights groups) holds degrees from both the National Defense University in Washington and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (which means he probably speaks English better than I do). Omega is one of four units specified to be receiving assistance from a four-month, fifty-three-person detachment of U.S. military trainers that arrived in Colombia at the beginning of June.
The Omega Task Force isn’t accused of killing anyone in these confrontations, but local campesino groups and national human rights groups have leveled some very troubling allegations of rough and aggressive treatment of farmers at the soldiers’ hands. I’ll summarize those in another post.
Omega in the Guayabero is just one example among many of a more combative approach to forced coca eradication this year, and especially since the pandemic lockdown began in March. I discussed this trend in a post in early July, but it’s time to dig deeper.
Here are the points I want to explore over the next few weeks. The outline may change as research accumulates and thoughts evolve.
Forced coca eradication has been notably rougher and more aggressive this year.
There have been many more denunciations of aggressive behavior in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. While coca farmers aren’t models of nonviolence either, the security forces have the guns and the option whether to escalate or de-escalate. Where armed groups are forcing some coca farmers to protest against their better judgment, that should be another reason to de-escalate.
Eradication is larger in scale this year.
Too much is being guided right now by a single, short-term number: hectares of coca planted in Colombia. The U.S. government is pushing Colombia to cut that number by half in 2023, and Bogotá is pursuing some record eradication targets in order to get there. The number of eradication teams has grown sixfold, much of it with U.S. funding.
Eradication is happening with the participation of U.S.-aided armed forces units.
Joint Task Force Omega in the Guayabero is a key example. The U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade that arrived in June is also accompanying military units in two other major coca-growing zones, Catatumbo and Nariño, as well as the nationwide mobile Army Counternarcotics Brigade created with funds from the original 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package. As eradication operations grow more aggressive, U.S.-aided units’ behavior requires especially tight scrutiny.
Eradication is happening uncoordinated with food security or any other economic assistance—even in a pandemic.
Colombia’s defense minister has acknowledged this, as have officials with whom I’ve recently spoken. Leaving coca farming families hungry is not only cruel, it would seem to be a recipe for rapid re-planting. Perhaps it makes sense if the goal is to meet an eradication goal just for 2020, future be damned. But it makes no sense if the goal is to achieve permanent reductions in planting, or to integrate these abandoned territories into the rest of the country.
Farmers are caught in the middle.
With no land titling, no government presence, no access to credit, and no farm-to-market roads, coca—an easily transportable product that for years has sold at a reliably steady price—is farmers’ best, and often only, option. Armed groups in some cases require farmers to plant it, and there’s no government nearby to prevent that. Armed groups in some cases are forcing farmers to protest eradication. Campesino leaders, especially those leading coca substitution projects, are being killed in shocking numbers.
Depite all this, when eradicators show up in a territory, who bears the brunt of the security forces’ aggressive behavior? The farmers.
Some past efforts tried to establish a state presence, to uphold farmers’ organizations, and to integrate communities into the national economy. Right now, these are underfunded at best, or stalled or abandoned at worst.
Trying to reveal the “real agenda” behind this means exploring the Colombian elite’s split personality.
This is where I’d like to conclude this series of posts. Colombia’s elite seems to show two very different faces to communities in rural areas, including coca cultivators. The same probably applies to the urban poor.
The first face—that of “consolidation,” “stabilization,” land restitution, and the peace accords’ commitments—says to communities, “you can stay where you live.” Even if they don’t see the rural smallholder model as the most efficient approach, they’re willing to direct resources, and in some cases to foster participation.
The second face—that of paramilitarism, “mega-projects,” impunity for social leader killings, refusal to govern territory, and nakedly favoring large landholders—says to communities, “we don’t want you here.” (Or perhaps, “the free market doesn’t want you here”—a message as old as the British Enclosure Movement of the 1700s, and nothing unfamiliar to residents of declining factory towns and poor urban neighborhoods in the United States today.)
Forced, aggressive coca eradication without any food or economic aid? That’s solidly an example of that second face.
The U.S. government supports both faces of Colombia’s elite, to an extent that approaches split-personality disorder. Its aid programs have helped dozens of rural communities to remain where they are and to obtain land ownership, and some military aid programs helped improve Colombia’s overall human rights record. But it also supports aggressive forced eradication and (as we saw in documents released this week) has been too slow or quiet in its response to paramilitarism, social leader killings, and serious human rights abuses.
I’ll be digging more into these questions over the next several weeks.
For nearly 20 years, when uniformed U.S. military deploy to Latin America, the U.S. Southern Command has required that they carry a little card reminding them of “the five ‘Rs’ of human rights”: to “recognize, refrain, react, record, and report” if they hear of, or witness, a human rights violation.
Higher up in the Pentagon, though, standards have been lower.
The National Security Archive just revealed a 2004 memo from Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon (George W. Bush’s first term). It’s a series of bullet points addressing the suspicious past of Colombia’s then-president, Álvaro Uribe.
“Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia [the department that includes Medellín, between 1995 and 1997],” Rodman informs Rumsfeld. But he brushes it off: “It goes with the job.”
“Goes with the job?” The AUC, at the time, was on the Bush administration’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Bush administration had in fact added the AUC to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations on September 10, 2001. At the time, AUC leaders were sending hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States. The AUC grew rapidly in size and strength in Antioquia while Uribe was governor, committing massacres including one that destroyed the village of El Aro in 1997—a crime for which Colombia’s Supreme Court recently called Álvaro Uribe to provide testimony. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the paramilitaries committed the majority of extrajudicial killings and massacres in Colombia’s conflict, according to the government’s National Center for Historical Memory.
Assistant Secretary Rodman was not ignorant about Colombia. In August 2001, he had a long exchange with reporters about an initiative for which he was playing a lead role: the new Bush administration was reviewing U.S. policy toward the country with an eye to allowing Colombia’s military to use counter-drug aid to fight its armed conflict.
No U.S. official would ever, during Uribe’s presidency, have said publicly that the Colombian president—a Bush administrationfavorite—had links to the paramilitaries. In private, Rodman’s blasé attitude about a group that was killing thousands of civilians per year—a listed terrorist organization, no less, during the war on terror’s most intense moment—flies directly in the face of the uniformed U.S. military’s publicly stated attitude toward human rights in Latin America, going back to the 1990s.
Southcom’s “five ‘Rs,’” if truly observed, would have required evidence about Uribe’s dealings with the paramilitaries to have been recognized, reacted to, recorded, and reported, while U.S. officials should absolutely have refrained from shrugging it off as something that “goes with the job.” The exact opposite happened.
Every couple of weeks, we get another alert that someone has been killed in Colombia by security forces carrying out coca eradication operations. Those operations are happening under U.S. pressure to go faster, and with lots of U.S. funding, even in the pandemic. And they’re getting more aggressive and violent.
That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.
While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.
The Army reported that 118 cases of sexual violence are under investigation. All involve uniformed personnel who are part of the Armed Forces. The most striking thing about that number is what it does not say: it does not speak of the silenced cases, it does not speak of results, it does not speak of reparation for victims and communities, it does not speak of a state commitment against these crimes, it does not speak of an understanding of the complexity of the problem. Why didn’t we know about this before? Why, nine months after the rape of an indigenous girl, neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor the Army have been able to find those responsible and apply exemplary punishments? Why, moreover, do they insist on the discourse of bad apples?
The defense of LGBT rights in Latin America is a topic to which I’ve paid insufficient attention. I’m glad that Carlos Quesada of Race and Equality was able to record this WOLA podcast with me, which I posted on Tuesday. Here’s the text from WOLA’s website.
We discuss cultural and political challenges to winning rights and recognition, basic obstacles to gaining basic protections, an ongoing backlash in some countries, and concerns about the effects of COVID-19 response and changes in U.S. policy. More encouragingly, we talk about how Race and Equality brings technical assistance to partners in the region, helping them use the tools offered by their governments’ legal and international commitments, particularly through the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights.
Why did 1 in every 37 citizens of Honduras end up detained at the US-Mexico border in 2019, after fleeing all the way across Mexico? Why did 30,000 more Hondurans petition for asylum in Mexico that same year?
During the 2010s, as a correspondent for The Guardian, Nina Lakhani covered the brutal drivers of this migration out of Central America. Her reporting was essential reading. Now she has published a book, Who Killed Berta Caceres, that digs into the pathology of Honduras: a nation that, while never prosperous nor just, has suffered accelerated rot during the 21st century, under the dominion of a kleptocratic and organized crime-tied—but stolidly U.S.-supported—regime.
Berta Cáceres was a prominent indigenous and environmental leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. She was murdered in March 2016, in her home in the town of La Esperanza. Her death poignantly anchors Lakhani’s story of a country badly out of control. Though she only talked to her once—an hourlong interview in 2013—Lakhani puts together a vivid biographical portrait of the co-founder of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Cáceres was a rarely dynamic individual with great energy and creativity, a natural leader. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes clear how much Honduras’s vibrant but beleaguered social movements lost upon her death.
In telling Cáceres’s life story, Lakhani is also telling the story of how activism in defense of marginalized people has changed, in Honduras and elsewhere, since the Cold War. The old narrative of class conflict, with radicals opting for violent struggle while elites’ enforcers massacre thousands in the name of “anti-communism,” has faded. Now, social movement work is non-violent, in countries that mostly maintain at least a facade of democracy. People organize around identity—as indigenous communities, as women—more than they do around socioeconomic class, though there is strong overlap. Ethnic and environmental struggles are now paramount, particularly opposition to outside elites’ “projects,” like roads, dams, agribusiness, and mines, that threaten to dispossess people, destroy natural wealth, and shatter longstanding ways of life.
In telling Berta Cáceres’ story, Lakhani explores the strategies to which a group like COPINH recurs in this 21st century context, the extent to which these “work”, and how the organizing and media landscape have changed. Lakhani’s account also places in sharp relief what the threats from those in power have come to look like, and how social leaders are kept off balance by relentless intimidation, attacks, and manipulation of the legal system.
Lakhani cogently discusses the challenges Cáceres faced as a woman leading a Latin American social movement. She faced opprobrium for perceptions of neglecting her children. Meetings were tense. “It was uncomfortable. At times, men stormed out, others insulted her, but this motivated her to do more.”
Everything got worse in Honduras, the book forcefully argues, after Honduras’s 2009 coup, in which business elites and the military deposed a left-leaning elected president. Not enough analysts and policymakers realize what a turning point this was not just for Honduras, but for Latin America. Elected leftists have since been had their terms cut short, with tacit military support, in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia (the latter amid allegations of electoral fraud). After Honduras’s coup came a deluge of land grabs, an acceleration of infrastructure projects like the Agua Zarca dam that Berta Cáceres lost her life trying to oppose. Had the coup and the subsequent orgy of corruption and repression not happened, it’s possible that the flow of migrants from Honduras would be far smaller today.
Lakhani is sharply critical of the United States’ role. The Obama administration, then in its first year, initially opposed the 2009 coup, but quickly lost its resolve. Lakhani puts much of the blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoting passages from Clinton’s later book. The blame, of course, is more widely spread: the coup plotters spent lavishly on a lobbying campaign that convinced far-right senators to hold up key diplomatic nominations, a form of pressure that proved effective. U.S. NGOs, unable or unwilling to drop everything else on their agendas, couldn’t match that lobbying effort’s energy. While Clinton is clearly a main character for so quickly acquiescing to the coup, neither her book nor Lakhani’s explores the role of Lanny Davis, the Clinton family friend (he was Bill Clinton’s special counsel during his presidency) whom the coup government hired to lead its Washington lobby campaign.
We meet a lot of dreadful characters in Lakhani’s story, most of them men with past military experience who serve as enforcers for DESA, the company seeking the build the dam that would destroy an entire indigenous community’s way of life. Some of them are defendants when Cáceres’s murder finally goes to court. We also meet paramilitary figures in the Bajo Aguán region near the Caribbean coast, doing the dirty work for large estate owners making land grabs to plant oil palms for biodiesel projects. These men are rough, cruel, and corrupt. They are employed by Honduras’s elite, but they aren’t of the elite. They’re on the make, and have found a rare path to social mobility in Honduras, beyond gang membership and drug trafficking.
Peripheral characters in this book are gangs and narcotraffickers, the “badguys” that get the most focus from U.S. policymakers, think tanks, and Pentagon strategists when they make plans for Honduras. In Who Killed Berta Cáceres, the gangs appear mainly as a symptom of the country’s misrule, and the narcotraffickers overlap so completely with the state and the “legitimate” economy that it’s hard to tell them apart.
In one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, Lakhani presents the elite in a nuanced way. Unlike its Central American neighbors, Honduras didn’t inherit its most powerful families from the colonial period or the 19th century coffee boom. The lack of a singularly murderous elite explains in part why human rights abuses in the country during the Cold War, though shocking, were comparatively modest. Those who run Honduras today arose more recently; many are the descendants of emigrants from Christian Palestine. With some key exceptions, they don’t profit from large-scale agricultural landholdings as much as from capital-intensive projects, collusion with organized crime, and corruption. They tend to have a super-capitalist, almost libertarian mindset—the construction of autonomous Ayn Randian “model cities” keeps getting proposed—which endears them to many U.S. policymakers despite their symbiotic relationship with criminality.
This elite functions in close collaboration with Honduras’s U.S.-backed military. Lakhani profiles some of the specialized units that get deployed in social conflicts like COPINH’s struggle. Her portrait of an institution entirely given over to the country’s elites, at the expense of a vast population with few options other than to migrate, shows how infuriatingly little progress Honduran civil-military relations have made since the 1980s transition to formal democracy. It is particularly galling when one sees U.S. diplomatic and military officials heap praise on top Honduran military leaders.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres especially shines in its discussion of the investigation and trial of Cáceres’s murder. Though the reader may need a “dramatis personae” list to keep track of the various middlemen and thugs involved in the murder plot, Lakhani’s narrative is an unflinching look at how impunity works, in Honduras and in much of Latin America. The process drags on. Key witnesses don’t get called. Evidence pointing to higher-ups goes unexplored. Lakhani has difficulty accessing supposedly public documents.
Lakhani meets nearly all of the crime’s material authors in prison, and concludes that they, for the most part, are just trigger-pullers, mid-level planners, or scapegoats. Most of these individuals get sentenced. But who actually ordered Cáceres’s killing, and who were they benefiting? We still don’t know.
“The judges curtailed evidence which threatened to expose a wider conspiracy and criminal network,” Lakhani writes. In the end, even when an internationally renowned social leader is killed, the crime’s masterminds or “intellectual authors” remain, at least for now, out of reach.
“They tried but couldn’t jail her, so they killed her,” Cáceres’s daughter says. “We know it was [the dam-building company] DESA but the question is, who in DESA? It’s going to be down to us to find out.”
Today, in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is a paragon of elite impunity. He won re-election in 2017, which used to be unconstitutional: the president’s consideration of the mere possibility of re-election was a pretext behind the 2009 coup. The 2017 election results occurred under very credible allegations of fraud: the OAS couldn’t certify the result. Hernández’s military, including a newly created military police branch, has systematically put down dissent; Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist, a human rights defender, or an environmental activist. The president’s brother, an ex-congressman, is in U.S. prison for narcotrafficking. Even as U.S. Justice Department documents in the case name President Hernández as a co-conspirator, the Trump administration lavishes praise on him as a partner against migration. The State Department said hardly a word when Honduras ejected an OAS anti-corruption mission last year. Meanwhile, the movement of which Berta Cáceres was a key part remains very active, but is under constant threat and is arguably weaker than it was in 2016.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres tells an old story, but updates it for a 21st century context. It’s the story of a leader who makes the ultimate sacrifice after being branded an “internal enemy” for struggling, nonviolently, to defend her people. “If Berta had been killed in the 1980s,” Lakhani writes, “it would have been considered a political murder mandated by state policy. Today, security forces are still deployed to protect foreign and national business interests, but belligerent community leaders are tarnished as anti-development criminals and terrorists, rather than as leftist guerillas.”
It’s not called counter-insurgency anymore—at least not in Honduras—but it’s the same fight, only the battlefield has shifted. Those who fight nonviolently are the heroes here, and that’s why getting at the masterminds of Berta’s killing is so important. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes apparent that, if one pulls hard enough on that particular thread of the “intellectual authors,” one might just unravel the entire political-criminal apparatus that has overtaken Honduras.
Until that happens, though, the United States, Mexico, and other countries can expect more waves of Honduran migrants. They’ll be fleeing a country that has become unlivable for all who aren’t part of that apparatus.
I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her two weeks ago, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).
Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a human rights defender. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres – a much-admired environmental and indigenous leader from Honduras – was assassinated. Cáceres was a courageous leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for her efforts to stop dam construction on a river sacred to her Lenca people. But the assassinations of leaders like Berta are rarely investigated or prosecuted all the way to the masterminds. Government, criminal, and economic interests work to silence activists like her.
In this edition of Latin America Today, Nina Lakhani joins Adam Isacson for a discussion on her new book out on June 2, Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso). Lakhani is a veteran journalist whose work has brought to light corruption, state-sponsored violence, and impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. She is currently the Environmental Justice correspondent for The Guardian U.S.
Here, Lakhani talks about why she chose to write about Berta and her lifelong activism, helps us understand the multifaceted Honduran context and why social leaders like Berta are targeted, and provides in-depth analysis of her investigations into Berta’s assassination. The conversation ends with Lakhani’s outlook on how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections may affect accountability on what she calls “impunity on every level.”
It’s not every day you get to record a podcast with a member of Congress. I enjoyed sitting down virtually this morning with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Colombia. He was fired up about the outrageous recent scandal involving U.S.-aided army intelligence units spying on Colombian reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, and others.
He calls here for a suspension of U.S. military aid and a much clearer U.S. commitment to implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accords and protecting its threatened social leaders.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.
Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
I enjoyed recording this conversation with someone I admire a lot, El Paso-based asylum attorney Taylor Levy. Here’s the narrative from the WOLA podcast web page:
In mid-2019 the Trump administration ramped up its “Remain in Mexico” program, forcing tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearing dates in Mexican border cities. In order to do her job, Taylor Levy, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas, found herself spending most of her time on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
This gave Levy a firsthand look at the cruelties of the Trump administration’s war on the right to seek asylum at the border—some of them dramatic and shocking, some of them everyday outrages.
In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 made a border closure look more likely, Levy relocated to Ciudad Juárez in order to serve her clients. She remained there until the pandemic forced the hotel where she was staying to close down.
In this podcast, Taylor Levy shares some of her recent experiences and some dire warnings about what is to come. Hers is a gripping testimony about what it is like to be on the ground in the middle of one of the worst human rights crises in recent Latin American history—one created by U.S. policy.
Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.
In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
Under something called an “Interim Final Rule,” the Trump administration has sealed the U.S.-Mexico border since March 20 to all “inessential” travel. This means those without proper travel documents are getting expelled in as little as 90 minutes.
These expulsions are happening even to people asking for asylum or protection in the United States. Right now our government is sending hundreds of people directly back to danger.
This rule comes with a public comment process, and last Thursday was the deadline for getting in comments. With the text linked here and as a PDF here, WOLA was among dozens of organizations to submit comments. While I doubt it will get the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services to alter the rule, the collection of comments from organizations, taken together, is a remarkable document.