Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Mexico

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in May

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on political developments, issues with U.S. foreign policy, and events in selected countries.
    Mark P. Sullivan, June S. Beittel, Nese F. DeBruyne, Peter J. Meyer, Clare Ribando Seelke, Maureen Taft-Morales, M. Angeles Villareal, Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 21, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46258.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on developments in Cuba and U.S. policy concerns.
    Mark P. Sullivan, Cuba: U.S. Policy in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 14, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45657.
  • The GAO discusses how well (or poorly) the State Department and USAID have monitored and evaluated programs to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative” aid package. This report does not report comprehensively on all aid to Mexico.
    U.S. Assistance to Mexico: State Department Could Improve its Monitoring of Mérida Initiative Projects (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 12, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-388.

WOLA Podcast: Practicing Asylum Law in El Paso: “MPP is just—it’s utterly insane”

I enjoyed recording this conversation with someone I admire a lot, El Paso-based asylum attorney Taylor Levy. Here’s the narrative from the WOLA podcast web page:

In mid-2019 the Trump administration ramped up its “Remain in Mexico” program, forcing tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearing dates in Mexican border cities. In order to do her job, Taylor Levy, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas, found herself spending most of her time on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

This gave Levy a firsthand look at the cruelties of the Trump administration’s war on the right to seek asylum at the border—some of them dramatic and shocking, some of them everyday outrages.

In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 made a border closure look more likely, Levy relocated to Ciudad Juárez in order to serve her clients. She remained there until the pandemic forced the hotel where she was staying to close down.

In this podcast, Taylor Levy shares some of her recent experiences and some dire warnings about what is to come. Hers is a gripping testimony about what it is like to be on the ground in the middle of one of the worst human rights crises in recent Latin American history—one created by U.S. policy.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in April

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Mexican politics and economics, U.S.-Mexican relations, and assistance. Good U.S. aid numbers.
    Clare Ribando Seelke, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 29, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R42917.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Honduran politics and bilateral relations with the United States.
    Peter J. Meyer, Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 27, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL34027.
  • The Government Accountability Office found that Customs and Border Protection wildly overspent on a tent facility to house apprehended migrants during late 2019.
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Management of a Temporary Facility in Texas Raised Concerns about Resources Used (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, April 9, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-321R.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Searching for Mexico’s Disappeared

With two very good guests in two parts of Mexico, I’m really glad the technology held up on this one. It was well worth the high-wire act.

Here’s the text of the summary at wola.org. Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

More than 60,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. As a March 23 WOLA commentary by Maureen Meyer and Gina Hinojosa notes, the current government is taking some initial steps to address the crisis. A great deal, however, remains to be done, and victims’ groups trying to locate the disappeared continue to work very much on their own.

To discuss the crisis and Mexico’s incipient efforts to address it, Meyer and Hinojosa are joined by two guests from the frontlines of Mexico’s fight to locate and identify the disappeared. Mariano Machain is the international advocacy coordinator at SERAPAZ Mexico, a non-governmental organization working for peace and positive transformation of social conflicts. Lucy Díaz (seen in a December 2019 ABC News Nightline feature) is a leader of Colectivo Solecito, a group of mothers searching for the disappeared in Veracruz state; her son Luis disappeared in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This morning in Ciudad Juarez

By a drainage ditch on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, a soldier with a “National Guard” armband buys what looks like cigarettes from a vendor.

What happens if Mexican cartels go on the terrorist list

It’s a waste of time to write something that concludes, “President Trump hasn’t thought this through.” Of course he hasn’t. But still, let’s think through Trump’s declaration this week that he plans to add Mexican criminal groups (“cartels”) to the U.S. government’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Here’s that list, covering the whole world. There are some pretty vicious groups listed on it: ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the ELN.

But there are a lot of vicious groups missing. You don’t see the Russian Mafia, the Hong Kong Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, Italy’s Cosa Nostra, Brazil’s PCC, Central America’s MS-13—or Mexican cartels. There aren’t any criminals or mobsters on the list. Which makes President Trump’s call to add Mexican organized crime groups look bizarre.

But it’s not that bizarre, because U.S. law about terrorism is pretty weird anyway. Just start with the term “terrorism”: the very good Wikipedia entry on “Definitions of Terrorism” finds several different ones in the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, Defense Department guidances, and elsewhere. Those definitions aren’t in sync.

They differ on an important question: whether an act of violence has to be politically motivated to be considered “terrorism,” or whether it’s enough that the violence just seeks to influence a government’s actions. A drug cartel using violence to keep government out if its business fits the second definition, but “keep out of our business” doesn’t really count as a political motivation.

The law governing the State Department’s listing of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Title 22 U.S. Code Section 2656f(d)(2)) uses the first definition, requiring some political motivation in order for a violent group to be considered “terrorist”:

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

So for the purposes of the “terrorist list,” there has to be a political motivation. Adding Mexican organized crime to that list would stretch the definition of “political motivation” so much that it would open the door to adding potentially dozens of worldwide criminal groups to the list.

It’s not hard to imagine why the State Department, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community would want to avoid doing that. Mixing criminal groups with terrorist groups means losing focus. In the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a broad consensus that the U.S. government needed to concentrate its resources and assets on groups, like Al Qaeda, that had used terrorism to kill civilians for a “cause,” no matter how twisted. There was an assumption (usually borne out) that criminals would not be so radicalized or extremist that, for instance, they’d employ suicide bombers.

So there were no serious proposals to dilute the focus by adding organized crime to the terrorist list. The U.S. government already had—and still has—ample tools for dealing with drug-trafficking organized crime groups, going back to the drug war legislation of the 1980s and 1990s. Kingpin Act designations. Lists of specially designated narcotics traffickers. Decertifications of states that collude with them. And billions of dollars in aid each year under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program and Defense budget authorities.

Meanwhile, perhaps because they lack political motivations, organized crime groups tend to be much more transient and shorter-lived than terrorist groups. They’re slippery. They fragment and change names, they lose and gain relevance, more quickly than the groups on the FTO list. Start adding organized crime groups to the list and get ready to update it constantly.

Look at the organized crime landscape in Mexico. In 2006, it was dominated by the Sinaloa cartel and some smaller ones: Gulf, Zetas, Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes), Tijuana (Arellano Félix), Familia Michoacana, Beltrán Leyva, and not many others. If your terrorist list included those today, it’d be irrelevant. Some of those are functionally defunct, you’d have to add splinter groups of some of them, and you’d have to consider adding groups that weren’t on the radar in 2006, like the Cuinis, the Viagras, Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, Nueva Plaza, Nueva Resistencia, Gente Nueva, Santa Rosa de Lima, Northeast Cartel, and many others—first among them, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, headed by Nemesio Oseguera alias “El Mencho.”

A decade ago, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo said that his country’s authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. When undergoing the thorough, deliberative process of listing a group, it hardly makes sense to keep up with all of these comings, goings, and schisms.

Some Mexican analysts have pointed out since Trump’s announcement that listing Mexican criminal groups as “terrorists” increases the likelihood of military action in Mexican territory. That may technically be true, though it’s still a very slim likelihood. It’s hard to imagine U.S. military personnel carrying out an operation on Mexican soil without Mexican consent just because a Mexican criminal group has been given a new status. Still, there’s always a scenario that goes something like: “President López Obrador, we have the coordinates where ‘El Mencho’ is right now. We have one hour. We don’t care what you say, a drone is on its way.”

Short of military operations, listing Mexican criminal groups would mean a heavier U.S. hand in Mexico because it would cast a wide net across Mexican society. Organized crime survives everywhere through its deep roots in the state and civil society. (Terrorist groups also do, to some extent, but tend to be more “off the grid” because their relations with states are more adversarial.) People who live in legality are quiet “nodes” on the organized-crime network. If Mexican groups end up on the FTO list, the U.S. government’s list of Mexican citizens offering “material support to terrorism” (in the eyes of the law, the same as raising money for Al Qaeda) could explode, and could include officials at all levels of Mexican government. It could also include people who make extortion payments under duress. Mary Beth Sheridan explained it well in the Washington Post:

Mexican organized-crime groups aren’t isolated bands operating at the margins of society. Their members own legitimate-seeming businesses, exert control over communities and routinely pay off politicians and police. If any contact with organized-crime groups was construed as support for terrorism, many Mexicans — including innocent people — could find themselves punished.

This might not be a totally bad consequence, because it would mean more accountability for corruption. But it could gum up travel, trade, and overall relations pretty badly.

But the crackdown wouldn’t just happen in Mexico. Listing Mexican groups as terrorists could also cast a wide net across U.S. society. It’s “possible Trump’s move could see U.S. drug dealers labeled and treated as terrorist supporters,” Alex Ward wrote in Vox. The same, one assumes, would go for U.S. bankers or realtors who facilitate cartels’ money-laundering: no more fines, they’d be looking at jail time for terrorist financing. And it would come down hard on all the U.S. citizen “ant traffickers” who take advantage of America’s lax gun laws by buying a few AR-15s at gun shows and stores, driving them south across the border in their cars’ trunks, and selling them to criminals for robust profits. The banking and gun lobbies will be unhappy with this new counter-terrorist scrutiny.

Another interesting outcome would be that Mexican victims’ asylum claims might get a boost in U.S. immigration courts. Their cases wouldn’t become “slam dunks,” necessarily, but it’d certainly help them. If you’ve been threatened by a group on the FTO list, your claim is going to be stronger than it would be if you were just threatened by a criminal organization.

If a group is seen as so active and threatening that it makes the terrorist list, it’s easier to argue that the group has national reach, so the asylum seeker isn’t safe anywhere in her country’s territory. Also, it’s easier to argue that the asylum-seeker’s government isn’t capable of protecting her. That latter argument is even stronger because of corruption. Several years ago it was nearly impossible to argue that Colombia’s government couldn’t protect people from the FARC because the FARC had corrupted Colombia’s government: the FARC didn’t work that way, they fought the government. But Mexican organized crime does work that way: the victims of the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre—to take one example among very many—were the victims not just of Guerreros Unidos, but of local security forces that had become the criminals’ virtual allies.

Would victims of these groups automatically get asylum? No, not at a time when the Trump administration has raised the bar for asylum to nearly impossible, and certainly illegal, levels. But if asylum-seekers’ lawyers (if they have them) can say their clients are threatened by groups on the State Department’s terrorist list, they will be sure to feature that very prominently in their clients’ applications.

From U.S. bankers being labeled “terrorist supporters” to asylum-seekers having a big new argument, a lot of unintentional outcomes could come from the Trump administration “crossing the streams” and adding Mexican criminal groups to the terrorist list. Clearly, President Trump hasn’t thought them through.

Thread: new border and migration data graphics

Yesterday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released its August data about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Using that, along with data from Mexico’s government and recent non-governmental studies, I posted a 9-tweet thread to Twitter last night, with 17 graphics. Here is that thread, deconstructed.

(1/9) Let’s post a bunch of migration data using CBP and Mexico government numbers.

With 800,000+ apprehended in 11 months, this is the largest apprehensions total since 2007. But unlike 2007, 2 out of 3 are children and parents. In fact, single adults are still trending down.

(2/9) Trump’s June tariff threat caused Mexico to increase its own apprehensions, leading to a drop in US apprehensions at the border. But we’ve seen this before: there were drops after crackdowns and disruptions in 2014 and 2017, and migration recovered after a few months.

(3/9) The crackdown has further increased demand on Mexico’s overwhelmed, underfunded asylum system.

(4/9) After the crackdown, migration from Guatemala dropped more sharply than migration from Honduras. Honduras is now the number-one origin country for migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border, followed by Guatemala then Mexico.

(5/9) Add people on waitlists at ports of entry plus “Remain in Mexico” victims, and there were at least 52,000 asylum seekers stuck in Mexican border towns by the end of July. It’s probably somewhere around 65,000-70,000 now: a nightmare scenario.

(6/9) CBP seems to have eased “metering” ever-so-slightly in August. (6/9)

(7/9) 11 months into fiscal 2019, seizures of cocaine, meth, and fentanyl already exceed fiscal 2018. As usual, most seizures happen at ports of entry, not the areas in between where some would build more walls. Heroin is flat, perhaps because demand for fentanyl is greater.

(8/9) Marijuana seizures continue to decline sharply at the border, a likely outcome of states’ legalizations, and port-of-entry seizures are suddenly the majority.

(9/9) Download these graphics and more as a big PDF at http://bit.ly/wola-border.

Some Mexico-Guatemala Border Crossings

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

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

Video of my long talk, in Mexico, about “militaries as police”

Many thanks to Mexico’s Universidad Iberoamericana, who along with several other groups organized a May 21-22 conference in Mexico City on the need for civilians to be in charge of security, at a time when it is militarizing throughout Latin America.

They asked me to give a talk about citizen security and the military’s involvement, region-wide. And they gave me 45 minutes to do it. And then they produced this high-quality video, showing all 77 of my slides and sign language for the hearing-impaired. Very impressive.

I think I did a decent job here. The video is in Spanish, with optional closed-caption subtitles (again, very impressive).

Good morning from the Tijuana port of entry

Here’s 3 1/2 minutes of me talking into my phone near a grim daily ritual: dozens of migrants queuing up for the weeks-long waitlist for their chance to cross to U.S. soil and request asylum.

WOLA Podcast: A Humanitarian Crisis, Not a National Emergency

Here’s a conversation with my WOLA colleague Maureen Meyer about the border, which we recorded last Thursday afternoon and posted last Friday morning.

U.S. and Mexican border communities are contending with a surge of asylum-seeking children and parents, arriving by the thousands each day. The Trump administration portrays it as a “national emergency” and is sending troops, turning asylum-seekers away, and circumventing Congress to build walls.

Adam Isacson (WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight) and Maureen Meyer (WOLA’s Director for Mexico and Migration) discuss why the crisis is happening, and the Trump administration’s cruel efforts to “deter” migrants. Adam talks about what he’s seen over two weeks in San Diego and Tijuana so far this year. Then both outline a vision of what the process for asylum-seekers would look like if the U.S. and Mexican governments adjusted from a “security emergency” to a “humanitarian crisis” response.

Resources cited in the podcast include:

  • WOLA’s graphical overview of the February migrant data, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection released on March 5.
  • A December 2018 “snapshot” report, and February 2019 update, detailing current asylum waitlists at ports of entry across the U.S.-Mexico border, by the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego, and the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute.
  • WOLA’s Central America Monitor, which tracks U.S. aid to the region and evaluates its progress.
  • WOLA’s new Asylum Resources for Attorneys, compiled with the Temple University Beasley School of Law to provide resources for lawyers representing Central American asylum seekers.

This isn’t an aid package

Today the U.S. and Mexican governments announced what looks like a bombshell: a monster $10.6 billion package of new U.S. aid to address the root causes of migration. $5.8 billion of it for Central America, $4.8 billion for Mexico. “US pledges $10.6B aid for Central America, southern Mexico,” an AP headline gushes.

Not so fast. There’s almost nothing new here. And there’s no new grant aid here. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff and Mary Beth Sheridan get it right:

Of the total $10.6 billion referenced in Tuesday’s announcement, it appears the only new figure is the $4.5 billion in potential loans, loan guarantees and related services through OPIC. That money would facilitate private-sector activity and would be repaid, unlike traditional development assistance through USAID

“OPIC” is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that provides loans and loan guarantees to private enterprises seeking to make investments in developing countries. The additional money is loans, not aid. It all has to be paid back.

And they’re loans to the private sector—which are not going to address root causes of mass migration from Central America. They won’t reform police, fight corruption, fix justice systems, or anything else that makes threatened people safer from gangs. Private sector loans are hugely unlikely to help struggling small farmers in the Northern Triangle’s countryside. (Unless they choose to leave the countryside and get low-wage jobs in OPIC-financed factories.) These loans will mainly help a tiny elite get wealthier in one of the most unequal regions on the planet.

Here’s how it breaks down:

The $2.1 billion in grant aid listed here is all old money, already committed for 2015 through 2018. Except for $180 million, which is what the Trump administration proposes here in grant aid to Central America for 2019. If approved, that would be a two-thirds cut in 2015-18 aid levels!

It won’t be: for 2019 the House approved $595 million for Central America, and the Senate $515.5 million. If Congress ever passes a 2019 foreign aid budget, it’ll end up giving Central America a multiple of the $180 million proposed here, to help address the causes of migration.

So this is an aid cut and a repackaging of already-given aid and loans, masquerading as a historically generous “Marshall Plan.” Don’t fall for it. And resist this level of cynicism.

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