Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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Human Rights

Rocío San Miguel, now a political prisoner, discusses politicization of Venezuela’s military in 2010

I don’t get to work on Venezuela very often, but I did get to record a conversation in 2010 with activist and civil-military relations expert Rocío San Miguel. Here’s an excerpt where we discussed the military’s politicization.

Rocío was arrested last Friday in Caracas. Authorities are accusing her of terrorism and treason, which is as horrifying as it is absurd.

Hitting bottom

A January 2018 Washington Post feature on “The Golden Age of Conservative Magazines” hailed The American Conservative as “an unheeded voice in the face of indifferent or hostile elite opinion.” In 2012, New York Times columnist David Brooks called the publication “one of the more dynamic spots on the political Web.”

And now? Today, The American Conservative carried a piece just flat-out calling for sinking boats carrying refugees.

Contrary to consensus wisdom, mass migration can actually be easily deterred.

The powers that be should be willing to sink the boats in the Mediterranean, target the human traffickers and cartels in both North Africa and Latin America, target the financing and processing of migrants by NGOs and other entities willing to aid and abet mass migration, and mass-deport the millions who came illegally after 2015. It can be done. 

It is not done for two reasons. One, the post-1945 refugee convention and human rights laws, a relic of a different time, handicaps governments to take drastic actions. Two, the powers that be are ideologically aligned to promote mass-migration. To reverse that, there must be an overhaul of any post-1945 human rights framework and refugee conventions that opposes any deportation or martial action to deter migration. And there must be those willing to take action.

There’s even more, but you get the idea. The American right is on a hell of a journey.

This Is a Tragedy, and the State of Texas Bears Responsibility

This is incredibly serious.

Seeking to score political points, the State of Texas has barred the federal Border Patrol from a swath of the Rio Grande where a lot of drownings happen.

Yesterday, an adult and two children drowned. Texas failed to respond to Border Patrol’s urgent warnings.

“This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility,” says Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who often leans right on border issues.

Congressman Henry Cuellar - Serving the 28th District of Texas | recently learned that three migrants - a female adult and two children - drowned in the Rio Grande River near Shelby Park in Eagle Pass.

Border Patrol learned on Friday, January 12, 2024, at approximately 9:00 P.M. that a group of six migrants were in distress as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande River. Border Patrol attempted to contact the Texas Military Department, the Texas National Guard, and DPS Command Post by telephone to relay the information, but were unsuccessful. Border Patrol agents then made physical contact with the Texas Military Department and the Texas National Guard at the Shelby Park Entrance Gate and verbally relayed the information. However, Texas Military Department soldiers stated they would not grant access to the migrants - even in the event of an emergency - and that they would send a soldier to investigate the situation. Earlier today, Saturday, January 13, 2024, the three migrant bodies were recovered by Mexican authorities. Border Patrol personnel were forced out of Shelby Park earlier this week by the Texas National Guard under order of Governor Abbott. As a result, Border Patrol was unable to render aid to the migrants and attempt to save them.

This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility.

Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
– ELN
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022), https://indepaz.org.co/informe-sobre-presencia-de-grupos-armados-en-colombia-2021-2022-1/

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

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From WOLA: Dismantling Legal Migration Pathways Won’t Secure the Border

Here’s WOLA’s statement about the migration negotiations happening right now in Congress. People accessing asylum are not the problem: the problem is our outdated, underfunded asylum system grappling with years-long backlogs. Appropriations should focus on that instead—and do no harm.

The White House is signaling support for life-threatening restrictions on asylum access, including raising the standard that asylum seekers must meet while being screened in U.S. custody. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) calls on Congress not to use the lives of tens of thousands of families and individuals as bargaining chips in exchange for assistance to Ukraine and Israel. 

Rather than putting people’s lives at risk, it is time to be realistic about the push and pull factors driving migration, guarantee due process to people who need protection, provide additional legal pathways to migration, and work with countries throughout the hemisphere that are also receiving record numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Blocking asylum, a core human rights value adopted after World War II, has not and will not stop people from fleeing their homes and will worsen the humanitarian crisis. 

The reasons forcing asylum seekers from Venezuela, Haiti, Ukraine, Cuba, and many other nations to flee their homes will remain, regardless of changes in U.S. immigration policies. Right now, thousands of families are waiting for days in the most secluded border regions, in harsh conditions, and without supplies, to be picked up by Border Patrol in hopes of seeking protection in the country. 

The harsh measures that Texas’s state government is imposing aren’t deterring anyone: desperate people are crawling through razor wire with their children in El Paso, while over 3,000 per day are arriving in Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, the very heart of Gov. Abbott’s crackdown. People are coming even though a growing number do not survive the journey: the migrant death toll at the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the region is the highest it has ever been. Further tightening access to asylum, which is a cornerstone of our legal system and an important reform of the post-World War II era, will only contribute to dysfunction at the border and the loss of lives.

Raising credible fear interview standards, capping numbers of asylum seekers, expanding expedited removal proceedings, and restricting humanitarian parole will place thousands of people in life-threatening situations.

These policies would increase the probability of U.S. authorities committing refoulement (returning people to their place of persecution), a serious violation of human rights and of international and U.S. law. It is bad enough that U.S. immigration law makes journeying to U.S. soil and asking for asylum the only viable pathway for most to achieve protection in the United States, and that U.S. policy restricts asylum seekers’ access to ports of entry.

After a harrowing journey, while still in CBP’s jail-like facilities without access to counsel, many people with urgent protection needs will not be able to effectively defend their cases over the phone with distant asylum officers—especially if the administration and Congress raise the standard of “fear” to something close to what they would eventually have to prove in an immigration court. This policy change will return thousands back to likely death, torture, or imprisonment. The expedited removal process already fast tracks asylum proceedings at the border. Expanding it into the U.S. interior, impeding their ability to get lawyers and effectively make their cases, would subject migrants and asylum seekers throughout the country to speedy deportations without due process. 

Beyond a possible agreement on raising fear standards, Republicans are pushing for limits on the presidential authority, dating back to the 1950s, to offer migrants temporary humanitarian parole. A partial offer of parole to citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela increased order at the border by sharply reducing arrivals of most of those countries’ citizens. Restricting this program would overwhelm resources at the border.

These proposed policy changes directly contradict the United States’ commitments to racial equity, disproportionately impacting Black, Brown, and Indigenous migrants. The potential harm to these communities cannot be overlooked.

The standard for people to access asylum is not the problem; the problem is our outdated, underfunded asylum system grappling with years-long backlogs. Appropriations should focus on that, instead.

We urge Congress to not make permanent, harmful policy changes in exchange for a one-time funding package. The need for enduring, thoughtful solutions has never been more pressing.

One Out of Four Is a Lot

This can’t be the point Sen. Graham wanted to make, but:

Immigration judges, after rigorous procedures, are finding that 1 out of 4 people coming to the U.S.-Mexico border would be likely to die or be imprisoned if deported.

That’s a high likelihood of sending people back to severe harm if we deny them due process. It’s a strong argument for giving asylum seekers in the United States a fair hearing and to invest heavily in our asylum system.

Hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, November 8, 2023
(https://bit.ly/3FTZvC8)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina): You're the head of DHS and you can't tell me how many asylum claims are approved versus denied.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: Generally, generally speaking across the board on a macro basis, it's approximately 75% [denied asylum].

Graham: Okay.

On the Table Now: a Fatal Blow to the Right to Seek Protection in the United States

A Senate Republican “working group” has outlined a border and migration proposal as a likely condition of keeping the U.S. government open past the next “shutdown” date (November 17).

I’m still struggling to express graphically how severe this proposal’s consequences would be for tens of thousands of people facing real danger. Here is another attempt.

Infographic: Imagine that Senate Republicans' November 2023 border and migration proposal became law. Now imagine that you have fled to the U.S. border to seek asylum.

A series of arrows pointing downward, getting ever narrower as they reach the bottom.

Did you seek asylum, and get turned down, in every single country you passed through, no matter how impoverished, dangerous, and unable to protect you those countries are?

Did CBP officers doing “metering” at the borderline permit you to approach an official land border crossing (port of entry) to ask for asylum?

Was DHS somehow unable to ship you off to a (likely impoverished or dangerous) third country to go seek asylum there?

In your rapid screening interview, did you meet a new, very high “credible fear” standard?

Was DHS somehow unable to make you “Remain in Mexico”while you await your immigration court hearings?

Was ICE somehow unable to hold you (and your kids) in detention?

Did you make it this far? Almost certainly not. But if you did, then the United States might consider protecting you from likely harm, without jailing you in a detention center. This is a remarkably cruel proposal, undoing generations of basic protections. It must not become law.

View the actual proposal at https://bit.ly/2311_senate_gop

This Border Proposal Could Send Us Back to the 1930s—and Some of it Might Pass

As the U.S. government scrambles to agree on a 2024 budget to avoid another “shutdown” on November 17, Republican leaders of the U.S. Senate have laid down a set of border and migration demands as their top condition for agreeing to any new spending deal. If the Biden administration wants aid to Ukraine, for example, these are the GOP demands. Republicans in the House have similar—or perhaps harsher—demands.

Using the one-pager that Senate Republicans shared yesterday, here’s a graphic that shows how thoroughly their proposal would obliterate threatened people’s right to seek asylum in the United States.

This is a right that most of the world adopted after World War II. The congressional Republican proposal would send us back to the 1930s. And the Biden administration is already indicating to Democratic allies that they might have to adopt some of it.

If this ever became law, someone fleeing likely death or imprisonment would only be able to access the U.S. asylum system if:

  • They tried, and failed, to seek asylum in every country through which they passed on the way—no matter how impoverished, dangerous, or ill-governed the country.
  • They came to a port of entry (official border crossing), even though Customs and Border Protection, through a practice called “metering,” allows only a bare trickle of asylum seekers to access these facilities.
  • They could not be shipped off to a third country to seek asylum there (the Trump administration made agreements with Guatemala and Honduras to be “third countries” for asylum seekers).
  • They were able to meet a higher standard of “credible fear of persecution” in screening interviews performed shortly after arrival at the U.S. border.
  • They awaited their U.S. immigration court hearing dates while “remaining” in northern Mexico, or while sitting in ICE detention centers—even if they are families with children.

Thursday at 5:00 Eastern: Crowd-Control Weapons in the Americas: Evidence From the Ground and How to Stop Their Harm

A big group of non-governmental human rights organizations, from around Latin America, has a hearing on Thursday at the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to discuss how security forces are misusing supposedly “non-lethal” crowd-control weapons to maim or kill participants in political protests. The United States, through arms sales, is a top source of those weapons.

Join me later on Thursday, at 5:00—at WOLA or online—when I have the honor of moderating a discussion with some of them.

Here’s the explanatory text from WOLA’s website:

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) warmly invite you to the hybrid event “Crowd-control weapons in the Americas: Evidence from the ground and how to stop their harm”. The event will be held in-person and on Zoom on Thursday 9 November from 5:00-6:30 PM EST.

The right to protest in the Americas is regularly undermined when crowd-control weapons (misleadingly called non-lethal or less-lethal) are used and misused in ways that are disproportionate, indiscriminate and illegal. They inflict life-changing injuries, long-term psychological harm and even death. Despite growing recognition of their dangers, the manufacture, marketing, trade and use of law enforcement equipment including less lethal weapons continues to rise.

Join us for a civil society discussion on how to tackle the negative impacts of crowd-control weapons used by law enforcement in protests across the Americas with experts from the US, Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador. 

The discussion will include a presentation of Lethal in Disguise 2: How Crowd-Control Weapons Impact Health and Human Rights, reflections on an IACHR hearing on the subject to be held earlier that day and growing call at the UN for a binding global Torture-Free Trade Treaty.

Speakers:

  • Adam Isaacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA (moderator)
  • Erika Dailey, Director of Advocacy and Policy of PHR
  • Alicia Ruth Tapuy Santi, INREDH / Widow of Byron Guatatuca
  • Camilo Mendoza Zamudio, Researcher for the police violence observatory and platform GRITA of Temblores NGO
  • Juliana Miranda, Researcher for Citizen Security and Police Violence teams of CELS
  • Michael Perloff, staff attorney at ACLU

The event will be in Spanish and English with simultaneous interpretation available virtually. For those joining us in person and need interpretation, we ask that you bring a device and headphones to connect to the virtual meeting and access the simultaneous interpretation. Wifi will be available.

There will be ample time for Q&A, as well as a short reception following the discussion with beverages and snacks.

** Registration is required both for in person and virtual participation. Please RSVP through this link. 

The event will be livestreamed and accessible afterwards on WOLA’s Youtube Channel.

At WOLA: Migration Can’t and Shouldn’t Be Blocked. But it Can be Managed.

Here’s an 1,100-word statement recalling and highlighting some of the basic principles underlying our border and migration work. Backed up with lots of numbers and data, of course.

The main points:

  1. Most migrants arriving in the United States are exercising their right to seek asylum
  2. The United States needs to invest in managing, in a humane and timely manner, migrants and asylum seekers—NOT in more border security
  3. Legislative proposals from “border hawks,” like the “Secure the Border Act” (H.R2), would endanger thousands of lives

Read it here. It comes with an embedded video:

Really Disturbing Videos from El Paso, Texas

Over a period of 10 days in late September and early October, New York Times video journalists filmed the El Paso bank of the Rio Grande from across the river in Mexico. It’s important to view the footage they came up with.

Between the river’s edge and the border wall is a concrete embankment. Once on U.S. soil, migrants have the legal right to petition for asylum. They are seeking to line up along the border wall, near a gate, to be processed by the federal Border Patrol.

A Texas Guardsman (rear) waves his weapon at a man trying to get past him to the wall behind him, as another grabs his shirt.
A Texas Guardsman (rear) waves his weapon at a man trying to get past him to the wall behind him, as another grabs his shirt.

In order to get that far up the embankment, though, asylum seekers have to get past the state of Texas. As part of his “Operation Lone Star,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has posted National Guardsmen—soldiers with U.S. Army training and equipment, in a highly unusual role for U.S. military personnel on U.S. soil—and miles of coils of razor-sharp concertina wire.

A woman's arm bleeds after she passed through coils of concertina wire.
A woman’s arm bleeds after she passed through coils of concertina wire.

So now you’ve got a situation where soldiers operating under a state governor’s command are trying to prevent people, including families and children, from accessing law enforcement personnel under federal authority. This is happening elsewhere along the Texas border, too.

Passing a baby under the coils of wire. This is madness.
Passing a baby under the coils of wire. This is madness.

It’s bizarre, it’s dangerous, it violates U.S. law and international law, and the footage is hideous.

What a Difference 15 Days Make

September 20, 2023

Extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety. …Venezuela continues to face a severe humanitarian emergency due to a political and economic crisis, as well as human rights violations and abuses and high levels of crime and violence, that impacts access to food, medicine, healthcare, water, electricity, and fuel, and has led to high levels of poverty.

October 5, 2023

The United States is announcing today that it will resume direct repatriations of Venezuelan nationals who cross our border unlawfully and do not establish a legal basis to remain. This announcement follows a decision by authorities from Venezuela to accept the return of Venezuelan nationals.

UN Report Reveals the United States to be Just Another Country with Endemic Human Rights Problems

I read a lot of UN and other independent reports about the human rights situation in Latin American countries. It’s always interesting, though, to read UN reports about the human rights situation here in the United States.

On September 26, the UN Human Rights Council published the report of a group of experts who visited several U.S. cities in April and May 2023. (Among them was Juan Méndez, who is very well known to Latin America specialists for many past roles, including former president of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and former director of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.)

The experts’ report is direct and hard-hitting. Though the United States prides itself as a bastion of liberty and democracy, much of the UN experts’ language could just as easily apply to a Latin American nation for which I’ve advocated limits on U.S. security assistance.

The report is available here as a PDF, and at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website as a Word (.doc) file. Here are some highlights. Passages that I found especially jaw-dropping are emphasized with highlighting.

On law enforcement agencies’ use of force policies, or remarkable lack thereof:

During the visit, the Mechanism was informed that not all States in the US have regulations on the use of force and that there is no full nationwide regulation on the topic, with only a Supreme Court doctrine and Fourth Amendment rights applicable. The Mechanism is concerned that existing local and national standards on the use of force by law enforcement officials, including the Supreme Court rulings and the Department of Justice’s updated policy, do not meet international standards.

The Mechanism is profoundly concerned that this current regulatory situation is conducive to the early and unjustified use of force, including lethal force, by law enforcement. The Mechanism has received evidence suggesting that numerous law enforcement practices do not prioritize de-escalation and other less harmful methods of control of the situation, contrary to the principles of strict necessity and precaution of international use of force standards.

On lethal use of force:

The Mechanism is alarmed by the figures and circumstances in which people are killed by police in the United States. Every year, more than 1,000 individuals are reportedly killed by law enforcement throughout the country. Available data shows that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and reports suggest that 33% of all persons killed between 2015 and the first half of 2023 were running or driving away or otherwise trying to flee from law enforcement.

The Mechanism was concerned by reports suggesting that in 2022, the US had the higher number of police killings in a decade, with more than 1,200 people killed by law enforcement. Among these, 281 were Black people. The Mechanism is troubled by the fact that 59% (685) of all killings by police in 2022 were related to traffic stops, mental health crisis, or people not alleged to be threatening anyone with a gun.

On racial profiling:

According to a Department of Justice special report , Black persons were three times more likely to experience the threat of force or use of nonfatal force; three times more likely to be shouted at by police; and 11 times more likely to experience police misconduct (slur, bias or sexual misconduct), during their most recent police contact in 2020, than white persons.

In this sense, the Mechanism rejects the “bad apple” theory, suggesting that racial discrimination in policing is the result of isolated actions of a small number of rogue police officers. There is strong evidence that the abusive behaviour of some individual police officers is part of a broader and menacing pattern, connected into larger social, historical, cultural and structural contexts, within which policing is undertaken. Law enforcement officers in the United States share and reproduce values, attitudes and stereotypes of US society and institutions.

On disproportionate incarceration of Black people:

Black people are the most incarcerated and most criminally supervised persons in the United States. In 2021, 1,704,000 Black persons were under criminal administration: 591,000 incarcerated (391,000 in prison and 221,000 in a local jail) and 1,136,000 under probation (864,000) or parole (280,000). An estimated 1 in 19 (rate of 5,350 per 100,000) Black adult was under correctional supervision, compared to 1 in 62 (rate of 1,620 per 100,000) white adult.

…The Mechanism is deeply concerned by these numbers. These significantly disproportionate rates between Black and white persons are staggering.

On long-term incarceration of children:

[T]he Mechanism was shocked by information stating that at least 32,359 individuals are currently incarcerated in the US for offenses they committed when they were children, and that 80% of those are non-white and 58% are Black. 6,301 (19.47%) of these children were sentenced to life term and 3,162 are serving de facto life sentences (sentence over 39 years ).

On the population held in pre-trial detention:

About 451,400 people are detained pretrial on any given day in the United States. In 2002, 29% of people in jails were held pretrial; by 2023, that number increased to 71%. During the visit to the Los Angeles County Jails and the Cook County Jail, the Mechanism was shocked by allegations of inmates being held in pre-trial detention for long periods (i.e. more than 10 years) and for periods longer than the eligible sentence of the offence they may have committed, if convicted.

On the use of forced, unpaid, or poorly paid prison labor, permitted by the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, especially for Black inmates:

The Mechanism is astonished by evidence stating that this access to free or almost free Black work force, through free or poorly paid prison forced labour, exists to this day in the United States, constituting a contemporary form of slavery. Further, it received information stating that workers in prison are assigned hazardous work in unsafe conditions without the training or protective gear needed, and, if they refused to work, even for a medical condition or disability, they are punished accordingly.

The delegation received shocking information over “plantation-style” prisons in Southern States, in which contemporary forms of slavery are reported. Commonly known as “Angola”, the Louisiana State Penitentiary occupies an 18,000-acre former slave plantation, larger than the island of Manhattan. The plantation prison soil worked by incarcerated labour today is the same soil worked by slaves before the civil war. “Angola” currently houses nearly 5000 adult men, the majority of them Black men, forced to labour in the fields (even picking cotton) under the watch of white “freemen” on horseback, in conditions very similar to those of 150 years ago.

On the drug war, racism, and militarization of policing:

[I]n the US Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, albeit comparable usage rates. But in some specific US states, disparities can be greater, as much as six, eight or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested.

The Mechanism joins other UN mandates stating that the ‘war on drugs’ “has been more effective as a system of racial control than as a tool to reduce drug markets. Policing interventions based on racial profiling remain widespread, whilst access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction for people of African descent remains critically low.”

The Mechanism received information on the inseparable links between the federal drug policy, the federal programs funding and transferring military equipment to law enforcement agencies, and police killings of inhabitants in the US. Black people are more impacted by the use of this kind of equipment and tactics deployed in drug related raids, despite the fact that people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates. Normalization of military equipment in law enforcement agencies can enable and encourage a type policing that prioritize use of force, including excessive use of force.

On abuse of Black migrants:

During the visit, the Mechanism received several detailed accounts of anti-Black and racially based arbitrary detention and ill-treatment against migrants and asylum seekers of African Descent, including Haitians, by US immigration authorities.

According to information received, Haitian migratory-detained persons were denied access to sufficient food, health care, interpreters, information and legal counsel; after which they were returned to Haiti by plane restrained in handcuffs and shackles causing severe additional psychological suffering due to the association of this practice not only to criminality, but to slavery.

On crowd control and the response to 2020 anti-racism protests:

[T]he Mechanism received accounts on the authorities’ response to anti-racism protests in 2020, that led to thousands of arbitrary arrests and hundreds of people injured, mostly by the misuse or excessive use of less lethal weapons against protestors, such as batons, chemical irritants and kinetic impact weapons (for example rubber bullets). For example, 115 people were shot in the head and neck with kinetic impact projectiles by police between May 26 and July 27, 2020.

Information received make clear that in the 2020 anti-racism protests law enforcement confronted peaceful manifestations with riot gear as a first level response, rather than only in response to specific incidents of violence. Evidence suggests that law enforcement use a variety of unjustified levels of force, including less lethal weapons, against large peaceful demonstrations and against journalists, legal observers and paramedical teams, in violation of human rights standards.

…The Mechanism is particularly concerned over reports that the 2020 anti-racism protests were followed by widespread legislative measures and initiatives in some states, which would unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly.

On lack of accountability for abuse:

Only 1.9% of all killings by police in the past decade (2013-2022) resulted in police officers being charged with a crime. In 2022, available data indicates the proportion was only in 1% of the cases.

The Dangerous Wait for a CBP One Appointment in Tamaulipas, Mexico

An investigation by four veteran Reuters reporters finds a link between the Biden administration’s use of an app that makes asylum seekers wait for weeks in Mexico, and an increase in attacks on migrants, especially rapes of migrant women, in Mexico’s organized crime-dominated northern border state of Tamaulipas.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in May moved to a new system that required migrants to secure an appointment—via an app known as CBP One—to present themselves at a legal border crossing to enter the United States.

Nine experts, including lawyers, medical professionals, and aid workers, told Reuters the new system has had unintended consequences in the two cities, contributing to a spike in violence.

The high risk of kidnapping and sexual assault in Reynosa and Matamoros is one of the factors pushing migrants to cross illegally, four advocates said. Crossings border-wide surged in September.

Tamaulipas border cities like Matamoros and Reynosa have been notoriously dangerous for years. They’re home to the decades-old Gulf Cartel, the Northeast Cartel (an heir of the Zetas), and other splinter groups that compete violently.

Map showing Tamaulipas' location along the eastern segment of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tamaulipas, from WikiMedia Commons

These regional cartels have less-solid control of their territory than do larger national cartels like Sinaloa. This makes them more prone to use violence against newcomers and outsiders—including U.S. citizens, four of whom were kidnapped, two killed, in March when they came to Matamoros for a cosmetic surgery procedure. These criminal groups also make somewhat less money from the drug trade than the larger cartels; such “poorer” criminal groups are more likely to fund themselves by preying on vulnerable people, including migrants.

The Mexican state, especially the hyper-corrupt local government in Tamaulipas, is no protection. Officials often collude with organized crime.

So in recent months, when an asylum seeker uses CBP One, they can travel from elsewhere in Mexico to the border and show up at a U.S. port of entry at their appointed time. They do not need to hire a smuggler. That’s great.

What’s less great is that, when the port of entry is in south Texas (Laredo, McAllen-Hidalgo, and Brownsville, which make up 42 percent of CBP One appointments border-wide—605 out of 1,450 daily spots), the asylum seeker must travel through Tamaulipas territory under organized crime control. In order to be sure not to miss their appointment, they may even stay in this territory, near the port of entry, for days or weeks.

When they do that, the cartels—whose eyes and ears in the region are thorough enough to rival Cold-War East Germany—often find them and demand money. Reuters explains:

[C]riminal groups are still demanding these migrants pay to enter their territory, the experts said.

“Rape is part of the torture process to get the money,” said Bertha Bermúdez Tapia, a sociologist at New Mexico State University researching the impacts of Biden’s policy on migrants in Tamaulipas.

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