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

Southern Command’s “digital magazine” just stigmatized one of Colombia’s youth protest movements

U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activity in most of the Americas, manages a “digital magazine,” called Diálogo. It has some degree of editorial freedom from Southcom itself—an arrangement unusual outside the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That thin editorial line between the U.S. military and Diálogo’s writers, who are opinionated and amplify strongly conservative political views, probably isn’t evident to most of its readers in Latin America.

Often, Diálogo’s writers get things wrong. Sometimes, they get things dangerously wrong. Here’s a big example in an April 27 piece about the March 30 arrest of Sergei Vagin, an alleged Russian spy, in Bogotá.

To remain undetected, Vagin was steadily flowing small amounts from Russia — between $2,000 and $4,000. In addition, he sent detailed reports to various contacts in Moscow about activities in Colombia, especially during the social protests, Semana reported. He also allegedly tried to bribe a Colombian Army officer to obtain “top secret reports,” reported El Colombiano.

The money is believed to have ended up in the coffers of the criminal group Primera Línea, reported Argentine news site Infobae. This group has links to dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) and the ELN, and uses terrorism to cause systematic and collateral damage, Semana said.

Hold. Up.

The “Primera Línea” (“First Line”) is the name used by the groups of mostly poor young people who took to the frontlines in Cali’s “Paro Nacional” protests a year ago. They organized in response to the Cali police force’s initial, brutal attacks on peaceful protesters. Some of them were violent, but most were practicing civil disobedience. They engaged in constructive dialogues with Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina. And many were wounded or killed by police.

The government of Iván Duque has been casting about for evidence that participants in last year’s mass protests were useful idiots inflamed by outside forces like Russian propaganda, rather than an organic response to social exclusion, a deep economic crisis, hunger, and an un-empathetic government.

This is stigmatization based on the thinnest of allegations, and should not have made it past Diálogo’s editors. Worse, it may be self-fulfilling. As the Police continue rounding up Primera Línea members, leaving them and their relatives unprotected, Cali’s young protest participants may be pushed toward armed groups’ embrace—both out of frustration with peaceful tactics and for their own protection.

Here, Southcom’s “digital magazine” lends itself to the “Russian dupes” narrative by citing the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is sad and cynical. Until 2020, Semana was one of Latin America’s premier, and bravest, investigative journalism outlets. But its principal owners sold to one of Colombia’s richest men, Gabriel Gilinski, who set about turning the magazine and its Internet properties into a Colombian “Fox News.” Semana today regularly publishes information fed to it by the armed forces.

And in this case, Semana‘s “reporting” launders this smear into a form that Diálogo can cite, which endangers the kids in the Primera Linea even more.

This article, or at least the above-cited segment with the unfounded allegations against the Primera Línea kids, really needs to come down now.

A New Resource About Border Abuse and Accountability

In our work at the U.S.-Mexico border, we regularly hear about abuses or improper law enforcement behavior by U.S. security agencies. But so often, whatever happens gets overtaken by the next events, forgotten.

I wanted to start damming up this steady, alarming stream going by us all the time. So, many months ago, I set up a new WordPress install, and my staff and I started throwing into it everything we’ve seen and heard since 2020 about abuses committed at the border.

The result is a database that we’re hosting at borderoversight.org. It has more than 220 entries so far, fully cited. We’ve captured these events and allegations, and organized them by category, place, agency, victim, and “accountability status.”

I’m not exactly “proud” of what we’ve created here. Actually, trying to read through it is a monstrous experience. There’s only so many use-of-force incidents, high-speed vehicle pursuits, spied-on U.S. citizens, Facebook slurs, non-return of belongings, dangerous deportations, and timid oversight that one can take in a single sitting. The picture is grim.

I don’t want this to be viewed, though, as an attack on the individuals who’ve chosen to build a career as a Border Patrol agent or CBP officer. I have met many agents and officers, and found nearly all to be decent and honorable people. But take CBP and Border Patrol as a whole, and something changes. Organizational cultures are powerful.

Our maintenance of borderoversight.org will be continuous: a database is never “done,” but we’ll use it to spin off a lot of other materials and carry out further work on what’s causing this problem and how to reform it.

I hope you find it useful as we work for greater accountability and cultural change at these agencies.

Here are some resources:

  • We added a page with links to reports about the border: from WOLA, from the U.S. and other governments, from non-governmental colleagues, and from the media. Organized by category. More than 270 of them so far are at borderoversight.org/reports.

And here’s a quick video explaining this work:

What we know about the March 28, 2022 military raid in Putumayo, Colombia

A new analysis at colombiapeace.org tries to explain in English what looks like a serious case of human rights abuse committed by a U.S.-aided military unit in the part of Colombia where “Plan Colombia” began 21 years ago.

The Guardian called it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.

Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.

The piece addresses 14 questions:

  • What happened?
  • What was the human toll of the operation?
  • Were those killed combatants, or civilians?
  • What is the security situation in Putumayo?
  • Do the military units involved receive U.S. aid?
  • Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?
  • Did the soldiers wear black outfits and say they weren’t the Army?
  • Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?
  • Was the scene tampered with?
  • What happened to the money and the whiskey?
  • Are credible investigations happening?
  • What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?
  • What does this mean for politics and civil-military relations in Colombia?

Read it here.

43 social leaders murdered in Colombia in 3 months: UN

During the 3 months ending March 28, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Colombia Field Office “received information about killings of 43 human rights defenders and social leaders, including four women (7 documented, 35 under verification and 1 inconclusive or not verifiable).”

This from the latest quarterly report from the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, always a useful document:

Victims of eye damage at the hands of Colombian police have had to leave the country

During Colombia’s April-June 2021 Paro Nacional protests, human rights advocates documented 82 cases of protesters who suffered severe eye damage, often resulting from Colombian National Police agents’ misuse of “less-lethal” weapons, like improperly fired tear gas canisters.

Some of the victims have not only lost their eyes or their eyesight: they are now being hounded out of the country by constant death threats. An article by José David Escobar in today’s El Especatador profiles two young women who have had to leave Colombia, their families selling all of their belongings in order to buy the plane tickets out. At least two more victims, Escobar adds, are trying to get out of Colombia for the same reasons.

This is why my colleagues and I get so stridently angry every time we see Biden administration officials offer unalloyed praise for Colombia’s National Police force. This is a really troubled institution, and the U.S. posture toward it is disastrous.

A few translated excerpts from Escobar’s article:

Sandra Pérez, mother of Sara Cárdenas, who was also attacked on May 5, 2021 by the Esmad [riot police squadron], says that they received messages and calls warning them that they were going to kill them or that “they were going to take out her daughter’s other eye”. Even, a week after leaving the country, her neighbors told her that the windows of their apartment had been broken.

”After receiving the attack, we denounced everything that happened that day. From then on we started receiving calls and messages from unknown people threatening us. …I had to hide my other daughter with a relative in another area of the city. We were very scared. Also, before they broke the windows of where we lived, they pointed a laser at the windows of the apartment three times.”

…In the case of Leidy Cadena, she also said that in the months after her attack, she and her boyfriend were searched for no reason. “When I was attacked by the Esmad, there was even a policeman who went to the San Ignacio hospital to make me testify, hours after I had lost my right eye, something inexplicable. But the event that forced us to leave the country was when, in October 2021, we found that they had put gunpowder tubes under the door of my house. That’s when I felt that my life was really in danger.”

…While this article was being written, El Espectador learned of complaints filed last December and April 6, 2022 by one of Sara Cardenas’ aunts, who lives in Colombia and has been in charge of closely following the investigations of her niece’s case. The documents show that, since December 2021, she has been receiving calls and that she was approached by a stranger who told her: “You look better when you are quiet”, “Do you want to die? Stop investigating”, among other phrases.

Big new report—A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years

I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.

I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.

I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.

I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.

Read it here. Here’s a super-brief summary:

November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.

The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.

For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.

Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.

It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.

That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.

10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost.
2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate.
3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021.
4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011.
5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits.
6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.”
7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020.
8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups.
9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women.
10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.

Read the report

In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”

The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.

  • The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
  • The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
  • The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
  • The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
  • The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.

Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.

Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.

The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.

This is happening in Texas in 2021

A CNN story published yesterday sounds like something a high school student would learn about in a U.S. history unit about Jim Crow in the 1950s or labor crackdowns in the 1880s. But it’s apparently business as usual in Texas in the 2020s.

Seven months ago Gov. Greg Abbott (R) inaugurated “Operation Lone Star,” a $3 billion crackdown at the Texas-Mexico border that he portrayed as a response to Joe Biden’s non-continuation of some of Donald Trump’s hardline border policies. Since then, Texas state police and National Guardsmen have built fences, patrolled border towns, and arrested at least 1,300 migrants.

States can’t enforce federal immigration law, so Abbott has sent cops out to arrest migrants for trespassing on private property: a crime that, in the border counties where he has declared a “state of emergency,” is punishable by months in prison. Abbott ordered the conversion of two border-zone prisons to hold migrants.

Once thrown in jail, though, some migrants are practically disappearing. In a blatant violation of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. constitution, hundreds are going weeks or months without being charged and without any access to attorneys.

The examples CNN cites are horrifying.

The man was held in jail for 52 days before he was charged with the misdemeanor offense of criminal trespass, his attorney says. For 43 of those days — more than six weeks — he had no access to a lawyer, he told CNN. And the man said there were long gaps, sometimes two weeks, when he was not allowed to make any phone call to tell his wife how he was.

…two migrants who talked to CNN last week said they knew several men in their jail pods who had been waiting up to three months to talk to a lawyer.
One said the unrepresented men begged the others to raise their cases.
“‘Ask about us. Tell them we have 90 days, 80 days and we haven’t seen an attorney. We don’t know anything and here we are,'” he says he is told.
CNN raised the concerns with the TIDC [Texas Indigent Defense Commission]. The commission said it then located at least one person arrested in May and held in jail who did not have a lawyer. That person was assigned counsel Thursday night.

Some of those being arrested for trespassing weren’t even on private property until Texas state police forced them to step on private property.

He replays the video that, Martinez [David Martinez, the Val Verde County Attorney in charge of prosecuting misdemeanors] says, appears to show a Texas state trooper directing the migrants onto the private property before arresting one of them for trespass.
Martinez said he rejected the case.
Martinez has more. He pulls a file he says contains the cases of 11 other migrants who alleged that law enforcement zip-tied them in pairs, walked them about 20 minutes and made them scale a 10-foot fence. They were later arrested by state troopers for criminal trespassing, documents show.

Many of those being arrested and jailed are asylum seekers. Right now, because the Biden administration continues to use the pandemic to justify maintaining Steven Miller’s policy (“Title 42”) of expelling migrants who come to ports of entry seeking asylum, the only way to ask for asylum is to cross the border between the ports of entry—which according to Gov. Abbott is an act deserving of months in prison.

Many are actually asylum seekers, according to an attorney whose legal aid group represents more than 500 of the total 1,300 people reported arrested on suspicion of criminal trespass by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Many of them are here seeking asylum. They are educated. I have had a constitutional law professor from Venezuela. I’ve had a professional baseball player from Venezuela. We have journalists, political activists, [and] university students,” Kristin Etter of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid told a Texas legislative committee this month.

In the end, a large number of Gov. Abbott’s prisoners are being let go with charges dropped. In many cases, because by the time they’re let go they’re no longer recent border crossers, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn’t take them into custody, they just get released into Texas.

Many cases are not being prosecuted. David Martinez, the Val Verde County Attorney in charge of prosecuting misdemeanors, says from June to September he rejected or dismissed about 40% of Operation Lone Star cases.
In about 70% of those cases, he did so because the migrants were seeking asylum. In other cases, he has been troubled by the circumstances of the arrests themselves.

This is outrageous and disgusting, and the U.S. Justice Department must get involved.

But even beyond that, it‘s dismaying that this treatment of human beings—of people in a position of weakness—is something that Greg Abbott calculates will help him win re-election in the 2022 Texas governor’s race. The idea behind this is that Texans crave this kind of barbarity, and it’s a political winner for Abbott.

Texas is a conservative state (though seemingly less so every year). Still, I can’t help but think that these mass imprisonings-disappearances wouldn’t have happened under governors George W. Bush or even Rick Perry. It feels like lights keep going out in many parts of the United States right now.

WOLA Podcast: A Conversation with WOLA’s New President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.

Enjoy this one. Here’s the text at WOLA’s podcast landing page.

This week, Adam introduces WOLA’s new president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, to listeners.

The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.

They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.

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

WOLA Podcast: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must Begin: Justice for Disappeared Mexicans

A stunning 90,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. In a new WOLA podcast, our director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, Stephanie Brewer, emphasizes that the situation isn’t hopeless. She offers a really clear explanation of steps Mexico’s justice system can take, now.

Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

This week, Adam is talking with Stephanie Brewer, WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, about our latest campaign: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must BeginThe campaign addresses the more than 90,000 people disappeared in Mexico (mostly since 2006) and the challenges to stopping disappearances.

In this conversation, Adam and Stephanie discuss how the crisis grew to today’s tragic scale, what has worked and has not worked for investigations into disappearances in the country, and some of the major findings of the campaign. Please visit the campaign’s website to see the in-depth findings and learn what you can do to support victims and family members of the disappeared in Mexico.

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

Nueva Trova artists speak out

Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés were mainstays of Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” folk-pop musical movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Their melodies were influenced by the Beatles, but their lyrics and political positions were solidly supportive of the Castro regime. Rodríguez (who had a 1991 greatest hits album compiled by David Byrne), in particular, has staunchly supported the Cuban government’s policies over the years.

It’s notable, then, to see both of them used their Facebook accounts to criticize the government’s crackdown on the young people who went out to protest since July 11. Silvio Rodríguez called for the release of non-violent protesters, and more dialogue and “listening.” Milanés posted: “It is irresponsible and absurd to blame and repress a people who have sacrificed and given their all for decades to sustain a regime that in the end only imprisons them.”

Good for them.

Human rights conditions and Colombia’s “institutional architecture”

On July 7 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a report about the weeks of social protest that began in Colombia on April 28. The report extensively documents the Colombian security forces’ harsh and abusive response.

That same day, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry—less than delighted with the Commission’s report—published its response. That document claims:

the Colombian State has a solid democratic, participatory and pluralistic institutional framework, with a balanced institutional architecture between public authorities and autonomous bodies, with specific control functions and with the capacity to deal with events related to protests.

The country’s human rights community certainly disputes this, since Colombia’s institutions have usually had a hard time bringing serious abusers to justice, even when prosecutors and investigators have made good-faith efforts. But if it’s true, then recent moves in the U.S. Congress should be of no concern to the Colombian government.

The House of Representatives’ version of the 2022 foreign aid appropriations bill, which goes before the full House this week, would freeze 30 percent of aid to Colombia’s police through the largest police aid account, until the State Department certifies that the force is punishing serious human rights abusers among its ranks. This is the first time Colombia-specific human rights conditions have applied to police aid in many years.

If what the Foreign Ministry says here is true, then Colombia’s government should have no problem with this. If the country’s well-functioning, autonomous “institutional framework” punishes those responsible for massive abuses committed during the 2021 Paro Nacional protests, then the U.S. conditions will be met. They should be a non-issue, and the Colombian government should have no complaints here in Washington.

Let’s see what happens.

“One of the civilians said why don’t they put me in that van, and then a policeman said why don’t they disappear me”

From Colombia’s El Espectador, here’s English of the story of Álvaro Herrera, a French horn player who had been playing in a “symphony” at some of the protest marches in Cali. Herrera became sadly famous on May 28, when he appeared all over Colombian social media in a video, dazed and bleeding in police custody, strangely confessing to being a “vandal.”

What was done to Herrera needs to be told in English because it casts severe doubt on the Colombian government’s narrative that the-police-force’s-“excesses”-are-just-a-few-bad-apples-who’ll-be-investigated-so-don’t-worry. A whole unexamined side of Colombia’s state—one probably familiar to poorer Colombians—seems to be revealed here:

Alvaro Herrera Melo, 25, says his greatest wish in life is to study music and conducting in Germany. He dreams of perfecting his technique on the French horn and learning to sing. …[On May 28 in Cali] the two most heated spots were La Luna, in the center, and Ciudad Jardín, an exclusive sector to the south, adjacent to the Universidad del Valle, where a symphonic cacerolazo was being held by music students, among them Álvaro.

…In an interview with El Espectador, Alvaro Herrera Melo narrated the moments of terror he experienced while he was detained, according to him, by civilians who later handed him over to the police at the La María station, south of the city.

“When the shooting started, I ran out towards 16th Street, there I saw that there were civilians with weapons and I took out my cell phone to record. At that moment a civilian grabbed me from behind and began to choke me, they beat me on the ground and destroyed my cell phone (…) then they took me to the police station”, said the musician.

Afterwards, he said that he saw a white van right in front of the police patrol car in the sector. “One of the civilians said why don’t they put me in that van, and then a policeman said why don’t they disappear me,” he said, his voice cracking. Alvaro recalled that he managed to scream and beg not to be taken in the white private vehicle.

It was at that station where a uniformed officer, after beating him against a white wall along with other officers, intimidated him so that he would talk. “They asked me where I was and what I was doing, I answered that I was in a symphonic cacerolazo, but the policeman stopped the recording, hit me and asked me again, as if making me understand that this was not the answer they wanted to hear,” he denounced.

Within minutes, the video [of his forced “confession”] had been replicated in Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter groups. It was through him that his family and friends found out what had happened.

When he was being taken to the police station, and as was recorded in several videos on social networks, Alvaro was no longer carrying his French horn. Before the authorities he revealed that it was taken from him at the police station. “As soon as the civilians stopped me, I hugged my instrument so as not to lose it, but then the police took it from me and did not return it.”

“One of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me.”

One of several cases discussed in a La Silla Vacía article about people who’ve gone missing in the context of Colombia’s protests:

Valentina Smimmo Ramirez is a student at the Technological University of Pereira. She was a classmate of Lucas Villa, killed on May 5 by armed civilians in that city. Valentina was arrested on May 1 by ESMAD agents after participating in the protests.

It was near the San Nicolas CAI, which was burned down that day. Valentina told La Silla that she was running away from the gas and gunfire from the Police in that area that day when she was detained around 7:20 pm by ESMAD agents without visible identification.

“I fell down and when I got up I was surrounded by ESMAD agents and Police. One of the policemen told them to leave me alone, that they were looking for men, but one of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me,” she says.

She says that they did not take her to a CAI or a URI. “They put me in a black car and took me blindfolded to some warehouses near the fire station. Later I found out that’s where I was, when they released me. They had their implements there, like shields. There, they continued beating me. On the way, they turned off my cell phone, which was sending my location in real time. In the warehouse they discussed whether it would continue sending the location when it was turned off. They turned it on, saw that people were looking for me and got scared. Then they checked my wallet and found out that I am not a Colombian citizen, but Italian, and they released me.”

Valentina spent 5 hours in detention. According to her testimony, which La Silla could not independently verify, they did not respect her right to communicate, nor did they take her to a center to legalize her detention. She was also beaten and insulted, and then released without explanation. Two days later, Valentina says she was beaten again at a protest and had two ribs broken. She filed a formal complaint.

The hyper-politicized Honduran military

Here’s the great Leticia Salomón of the Centro de Documentación de Honduras, who has been studying Honduran civil-military relations since the 1980s, excerpted in criterio.hn’s coverage of a conference:

“The 2009 coup d’état opened the door for the military to leave the barracks and invade political space, but the National Party [of President Juan Orlando Hernández] turned the military into an armed wing of the governing party,” said sociologist Leticia Salomón during a forum held Tuesday on the anti-military struggle of Berta Cáceres.

Moreover, President Juan Orlando Hernández “in his legal and illegal presidential terms” turned them into “guardians of a personal political project impregnated with corruption and drug trafficking,” the sociologist also said at the virtual event organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) with the participation of analysts from Honduras, Guatemala and the United States.

The military are also “executioners” of a new version of the “old enemy”, as the defenders of territory and resources are seen, who must be “fought, imprisoned or killed.”

Salomón reflected that “it seems that the old positions of the 80’s are always being revived and that they are there hidden, dormant and always ready to come out at any moment to regain space and to try to impose a vision that is extremely harmful and damaging for the country.”

This reconceptualization of the “old enemy” introduces the concept of criminalization, which has three components. The first, the military and police ready to repress; the second, churches and the media ideologizing the conflict “and introducing a Manichean vision” that turns into good and evil those who are fighting for or against the defense of territories and resources; and the third, the use of the justice system against defenders, in which prosecutors and judges play a fundamental role.

These three instances became the executors of “a conservative, repressive, Manichean and anti-democratic political project”, and explain the role of the military who have specific functions, which, in addition, “they carry out with great enthusiasm”, said the sociologist.

Leticia Salomón (from Criterio).

…”The great challenge is to identify who, how, and when will begin the dismantling of this political project and its replacement by another that is capable of recovering sovereignty over the territories, reestablishing a rule of law at the service of national interests, restoring respect for life, for the defenders of resources, and for the defenders of defenders,” Leticia Salomón also said in her message.

She considered that it is necessary to rethink a different model of armed forces and police, and to give “a gigantic shake-up to the justice system” to restore confidence and eliminate the feeling of defenselessness “in which we all find ourselves”.

…Finally, the sociologist reflected that Berta’s anti-militarist struggle, and that of all those who have been carrying it out in recent years, should not only be encouraged and remembered, but should be instilled as an urgent and necessary demand for change in Honduras.

From WOLA: Violence in Colombia Requires Bold Response from Biden Administration

We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.

officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.

This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.

To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.

Read the whole thing at wola.org.

WOLA Podcast: A Snapshot of Human Rights and Democracy in Brazil

Many thanks to Camila Asano, the program director at the São Paulo-based think tank Conectas, for joining WOLA’s podcast. Her country is going through a historically difficult—tragic—moment, and she explains why civil society there is a last bulwark against authoritarianism. We must accompany and protect many very brave people during this dark moment.

Thanks as well to WOLA Program Assistant Moses Ngong, who is playing a bigger role in helping me put these podcasts out. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.

Brazil is the second largest country in the hemisphere, but its many complex issues rarely make news in the U.S. In this episode of the WOLA podcast, Camila Asano, Director of Programs at the Brazilian human rights NGO Conectas, joins Adam Isacson and Moses Ngong to discuss recent and ongoing attacks on human rights and democracy in Brazil.

The conversation covers a handful of key issues facing the country today, including:

  • How President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has worked to antagonize and criminalize human rights defenders
  • What the impact of COVID has been on the country, and the government’s poor response
  • President Bolsonaro’s authoritarian actions attacking democracy and consolidating power
  • Police brutality and reform efforts, especially in light of the recent massacre in the Jacarezinho favela.
  • What Biden and human rights NGOs in the U.S. can do to support Brazilian civil society

Camila’s insights provide valuable context for several issues facing the country’s relatively young democracy and diverse civil society. Please enjoy!

Readings:

Conectas’ publication on Rights in the Pandemic can be found here (read about it in English here).

Their publication on police violence at custody hearings can be found in English here.

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

WOLA Podcast: “The Border Situation Viewed from Mexico”

The WOLA Podcast continues to cover the situation at the border, this time what’s happening in Mexico. There, the Biden administration has been leaning on the national government to send more security forces and accept more expelled Central American families. I gathered four colleagues for what turned out to be a really informative discussion about the current moment, and it’s not good.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As migrants from Central American countries flee instability at home, Mexico is increasingly a final destination for them. COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, received a record number of asylum requests in March 2021. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struck deals with Mexico (and other regional governments) to militarize its southern border. The consequences of such deals means migrants will face more dangers in their journey north, including from state actors.

Despite the unfortunate response from regional governments, non-governmental actors are working hard to ensure that migrants lucky enough to make it into Mexico or the United States are supported and treated with dignity. This conversation details what is happening on the ground in Mexico, as well as what civilian groups in the United States are doing to support the first people to enter the United States as “Remain in Mexico” winds down.

We are joined by four WOLA staff experts:

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

WOLA Podcast: When your neighbor is a murderer: Sean Mattison on “escrache” in Argentina

I enjoyed this conversation about victims’ activism in Argentina with filmmaker Sean Mattison. The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The New York Times featured a short film by Sean Mattison about Argentina. Atención! Murderer Next Door, posted on November 10, 2020, tells the story of HIJOS, a group of children of victims of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, who started using a novel technique in the 1990s to pressure for an end to the amnesty that the armed forces’ torturers and killers enjoyed at the time.

Those responsible for the dictatorship’s campaign of tens of thousands of forced disappearances were living side-by-side with regular citizens. HIJOS and other activists started using direct action, gathering outside the perpetrators’ homes and workplaces and making clear to all that “a murderer lives here.”

They called this increasingly creative method “escrache,” which as Mattison explains here doesn’t translate well into English. Escrache worked: it helped build pressure for President Néstor Kirchner to end the post-dictatorship amnesty law in 2003. Argentina has now sentenced more military human rights abusers than has any other Latin American country.

As Mattison discusses, escrache has caught on elsewhere. Versions of escrache are already being aimed at Trump administration officials who led abuses like family separation. While it is not a perfect tool or an appropriate form of activism for all circumstances, it deserves a closer look, which is a future direction for Sean Mattison’s work.

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

WOLA Podcast—The Transition: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tone

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 .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

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.

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

At wola.org: Fixing a Culture that Protects and Rewards Abuse at U.S. Border Agencies

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 to give 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 agent ran 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 or bothered 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 Reason revealed 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 Gotawayvideo 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.


Read the whole thing here.

3 devastating reports in 11 days

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.

What does its aggressive coca eradication campaign tell us about Colombia—and about the United States?

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.

Strong images from June 4 in the Guayabero region.

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.

Examples in the past 10 years include the National Territorial Consolidation Program, the Land Restitution Law of 2011, and the 2016 peace accords’ rural reform and crop substitution chapters. None of these efforts is thriving right now.

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.

Top Defense Official in 2004: Backing Paramilitarism “Goes With the Job”

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 administration favorite—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.

As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

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.

Last Friday, someone else was killed in Putumayo. That appears to be the sixth civilian death since the COVID-19 lockdown began. So I wrote and distributed this commentary on WOLA’s Colombia Peace site.

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.

Read the whole thing there.

Colombia’s military: worse than we thought

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?

From a very strong editorial in Colombia’s daily El Espectador about what, as revelations continue to mount, we can only describe as a culture of tolerating rape—including rape of children—in the country’s armed forces.

WOLA Podcast: Challenges and Tools for Latin America’s Struggle for Equality

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.

Carlos Quesada, director of the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, guides us through the challenges faced by Latin America’s LGBT communities and other marginalized groups. He also explains how laws, treaties, and the Inter-American system offer tools for change—or survival.

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.

Listen above or download the .mp3 file here.

A story of what’s at stake in social movement struggle that goes well beyond Honduras

A review of Who Killed Berta Caceres by Nina Lakhani (Verso, 2020). Listen to my WOLA podcast with the author.

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.

WOLA Podcast: “If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody”: Nina Lakhani on the Danger to Social Leaders

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).

The book is out today. Pick up a copy, listen above or by downloading the .mp3 file, and read my review.

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

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.”

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

WOLA Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

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.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file. The text from WOLA’s website is after the photo (from 2017 in Cauca).

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.

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

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