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

Mexico’s asylum requests

For the month of August, Mexico’s refugee agency (Mexican Refugee Aid Commission, COMAR) reported receiving its largest number of asylum applications since March. 10,763 people applied for asylum in Mexico last month, boosting COMAR’s annual total to 77,786—already its second-largest asylum total ever. (COMAR received nearly 130,000 applications last year.)

The countries whose migrants have sought asylum in Mexico over 3,000 times in 2022 so far are, from most to least: Honduras, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Applications from Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and “other countries” already exceed their 2021 full-year totals.

Migrants apprehended in Mexico in July

Mexican migration authorities apprehended their fourth largest-ever monthly total of undocumented migrants in July, according to data posted in late August.

For the first time, fully half of those apprehended were not from Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras). As recently as 2018, 87% of migrants came from those countries.

The increasingly non-Mexican, non-Central American nature of today’s migrant population was the subject of a story that the Associated Press, reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border, published yesterday.

Migration data from Mexico

Sometime at the very end of June, Mexico’s Interior Department released data about migration through the country in the month of May. It turns out that May was the fourth-busiest ever month that Mexico has experienced, with authorities apprehending 32,948 migrants from other countries.

This next chart used to be almost entirely blue, brown, and yellow, representing the three countries of Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” who made up nearly all migrants coming through Mexico. Now, though, those countries make up only 54 percent of the total.

The rest—shown in green—come from the rest of the world, mainly the Americas. Here’s all nationalities with at least 100 apprehended migrants in Mexico in May:

  1. Honduras 7,512
  2. Guatemala 7,046
  3. Nicaragua 3,462
  4. El Salvador 3,285
  5. Cuba 3,141
  6. Colombia 3,016
  7. Peru 1,165
  8. Venezuela 1,640
  9. Ecuador 756
  10. Brazil 398
  11. Russia 271
  12. Haiti 246
  13. Dominican Republic 102

The number of apprehended migrants from Haiti (#12) has fallen sharply: fewer than those from Russia in May. Haitian migration through Mexico reached a peak last September, the month of the “whipping” or “flailing reins” incident in Del Rio, Texas. That month, Mexican forces apprehended 9,009 Haitian citizens.

Here is the latest data about deportations of Mexicans into Mexico. This statistic has reached higher levels than during the last two years of the Trump administration, in part due to a larger number of Mexican citizens attempting to migrate into the United States. Notable is the recent growth of this chart’s yellow segment: deportations into Tamaulipas, the only Mexican border state considered so violent and dangerous that the U.S. State Department has given it a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” warning.

The data underlying these charts is from the Mexican Interior Department’s Migratory Statistics Unit. I used Table 3.1.1 and Table 5.1.

Latest data from Mexico’s asylum system

9,740 people requested asylum in Mexico in June. That’s slightly fewer than in February, March, and April, but still puts Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, on track for its second-largest year ever.

Last year, a large number of Haitian citizens, migrating north after spending years living mostly in Brazil and Chile, made Haiti the number-one country of origin for asylum seekers. (The Chileans who appear here in 2020 and 2021 were almost entirely the Chilean-born children of Haitian migrants.)

This year, Honduras has returned to the number-one position that it has held during recent years. Arrivals from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua all appear likely to break past records.

Don’t let the “caravan” in southern Mexico distract you

Media are reporting on a large number of migrants leaving Tapachula, the city near Mexico’s border with Guatemala where tens of thousands are stranded, because Mexico requires them to remain in the state where they first apply for asylum. (See an early June report on Tapachula from some of my colleagues at WOLA.)

Hungry and miserable while waiting for Mexico’s backlogged asylum system to move, many are packing up and leaving. This time, a large number are Venezuelan.

Reuters estimated on June 6 that “at least 6,000” people left Tapachula en masse. Fox News immediately took notice and started piping footage into their viewers’ eyeballs.

Three points about this:

  1. No “migrant caravan” has succeeded in reaching the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexican forces routinely break them up. A large one last fall dwindled, with just a few hundred walking all the way to Mexico City (very, very far from the U.S. border), as Mexican forces prohibited caravan participants from boarding vehicles. Caravans have become more of a negotiating tactic for migrants to press for permission to live in parts of Mexico where jobs are while awaiting asylum outcomes. (Tapachula is in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.)
  2. Even if the caravan did manage to arrive at the U.S. border, we’d hardly notice right now. In late May, Axios reported that “the administration’s internal data now counts about 8,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border each day.” So “at least 6,000” people is less than a day’s worth of migration at the border right now.
  3. Caravans are what migrants attempt when they can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars each to a smuggler to get them across Mexico. They attempt to band together as a form of “safety in numbers.” But as noted, caravans really don’t succeed anymore. Instead, most of those 8,000 people a day arriving at the U.S. border right now are paying smuggling networks. And most of them cross Mexico in a week or two, usually less, in vehicles. U.S. media outlets’ and anti-migrant politicians’ obsession over “caravans” benefits those smuggling networks by making them migrants’ only option.

And it totally lets off the hook the corrupt Mexican migration and security officials who enrich themselves by looking the other way, waving smugglers’ vehicles through their many road checkpoints. The need to pay those officials (and, in northern Mexico, organized crime) is why smugglers’ fees are so high in the first place. But corruption gets like one hundredth the attention that “caravan” footage gets. Stop being distracted by the caravans.

Military-to-Military Relations with Mexico on Twitter

Even as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador boycotts the Summit of the Americas, knocking the bilateral diplomatic relationship further sideways, the U.S.-Mexico military-to-military relationship seems to be all hugs and smiles—judging.

That’s the impression you get, at least, looking at these tweets posted over the past 3 weeks.

Asylum requests in Mexico

The Mexican government’s refugee agency, COMAR, is nearly on pace to tie Mexico’s record, set last year, for the most migrants applying for asylum.

Last year, the largest number of Mexico’s asylum seekers came from Haiti. This year, Hondurans have retaken the number-one spot.

These and 48 more infographics about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration now “live” at WOLA’s new “Border Oversight” website.

WOLA Podcast: Is Mexico Prepared to be a Country of Refuge?

I MC’d a conversation between four very smart colleagues this afternoon, who helped make sense of a remarkable, and remarkably difficult, moment for migrants in Mexico. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Mexico had always been considered a source of migrants, or a country through which other countries’ citizens transited. Not anymore: so far in 2021, more than 120,000 migrants have applied for asylum or other protection in Mexico. And now, the U.S. government’s restart of the “Remain in Mexico” program means Mexico will be hosting even more people who’ve fled their countries.

Mexico’s transition to being a country of refuge has not been smooth. Its refugee agency, COMAR, is overwhelmed. The emphasis continues to be on deterrence and detention, in what has been a record-breaking year for Mexico’s migrant detentions. Mexico’s government has begun employing the military in a migration enforcement role, with serious human rights consequences. And U.S. pressure to curtail migrant flows continues to be intense.

We discuss Mexico’s difficult transition to being a country of refuge with a four-person panel of experts:

  • Gretchen Kuhner is the founder and director of the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMITwitter/Facebook), a civil society research, advocacy, and legal aid organization.
  • Daniel Berlin is the deputy director of Asylum Access Mexico (Twitter/Facebook), the largest refugee legal aid organization in Mexico, with offices in 7 parts of the country.
  • Maureen Meyer is WOLA’s vice president for programs. (Twitter)
  • Stephanie Brewer is WOLA’s director for Mexico and migrant rights. (Twitter)

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. 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.

Since mid-July, a really big jump in migration

Valerie González at Texas’ Rio Grande Valley Monitor has a big scoop this afternoon:

Title 42, a federal public health code used to expel a large portion of migrants seeking asylum, is as of late this week no longer in effect for migrant families across the country, according to a federal Mexican source, and the implications of which may have already been seen in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the source, they were made aware of the changes since Wednesday, but said no official communication had been released by Mexico’s office of Foreign Relations and the National Institute of Immigration, also known as SRE and INM. 

…By the end of the week, the practice was no longer applied to migrant families when Mexico began to decline accepting them. 

Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to expel as many migrants as possible shortly after encountering them at the U.S.-Mexico border, without affording them a chance to petition for asylum. The Biden administration hasn’t applied this “Title 42” expulsions policy to unaccompanied children, but it expelled 65,920 family members between February and June. WOLA and a host of other organizations have bitterly opposed Title 42.

Mexico was made to agree to accept expelled families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It started making exceptions to that in late January, refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families with small children to the state of Tamaulipas, which is across from the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in south Texas:

That is the sector where most Central American families arrive. As a result of the Tamaulipas limitation, Border Patrol has expelled families much less often from the Rio Grande Valley sector than elsewhere. See the rightmost set of columns here:

Now, Mexico’s ban on using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican families appears to be in place border-wide, even if the Mexican government hasn’t acknowledged it. (Why don’t they acknowledge these things? It’s not as though U.S. border authorities wouldn’t find out immediately.)

This is happening amid a jump in migration that appeared to start sometime after the July 4 holiday. González, who has been doing some excellent reporting from the Rio Grande Valley, has documented steady increases in the past two and a half weeks in the number of migrants—families, adults, unaccompanied children—stuck unprocessed in Border Patrol custody, just in this sector alone:

  • July 14: 3,500 in custody
  • July 19: 5,000 in custody
  • July 25: 7,000 in custody
  • July 31 (this morning): 10,000 in custody

Border Patrol’s rustic, jail-like Rio Grande Valley facilities have a capacity of only about 3,000.

You can see the post-July 4 increase in migration by charting out numbers of unaccompanied children whom Border Patrol is encountering at the border. Since their numbers jumped to record levels in March, the government has been providing daily (weekday, non-holiday) reports. (Get them all in a zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.) Here’s what that looks like:

You can see that on an average day, roughly 100 or more kids are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied now than were in late June and early July. If adults and families are following a similar pattern, we’re seeing an unprecedented July increase over already very high levels of undocumented migration. And as COVID travel restrictions ease worldwide, the numbers are likely to grow further.

The likely impact of Mexico’s shutdown of Title 42 family expulsions will be an increase in arrivals of families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the border. This may not be a tremendous increase, since—as the first chart above shows—70 percent of families from those countries arriving in the Rio Grande Valley were already being processed in the United States instead of expelled. But still, an increase is most likely.

If families face no danger of expulsion, though, we may see a decrease in arrivals of unaccompanied children. In a painfully large but unknown number of cases, families have been separating on the Mexican side of the border, with parents sending children across unaccompanied because they won’t be expelled. Without Title 42, families can attempt to petition for asylum while staying intact.

However, families who don’t ask “correctly,” or who fail “credible fear” interviews, may be flown home under the “expedited removal” policy that the Biden administration revived this week. Those deportation flights back to Central America restarted a couple of days ago.

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.

Mexico: Moving On from Military Cooperation

Here’s a quick analysis of where things stand with U.S. aid to Mexico’s military and police, which I wrote with WOLA’s Mexico director, Stephanie Brewer. The Mexico Violence Resource Project, a new initiative affiliated with the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, published it today as part of a really good collection of pieces about the future of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. (Which is going through a rough patch right now.)

Here’s an excerpt, but I just include it here in order to drive traffic over there.

Today, WOLA estimates that U.S. assistance to Mexico’s security forces totals a bit more than $100 million, of an overall annual package of perhaps $210 million. Of that, two aid accounts matter most.

* The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which can pay for military and police aid as well as judicial or other civilian aid, is channeling $100 million in appropriations into Mexico aid in 2021. About one-third to one-half of that is likely to assist Mexican police forces and the INM, with a small amount probably benefiting military units. (Mexico’s new National Guard has not been getting U.S. aid, though conversations are ongoing.)

* The other main account is the Defense Department’s authority to train and equip foreign security forces, known as “Section 333.” This very untransparent funding source provided $55.3 million in aid to Mexican military and police units in 2019,according to the Congressional Research Service. This is the main channel for assisting SEMAR and SEDENA.

$100 million is a much smaller package than Colombia’s military and police will get in 2021 (about $250 million) and a fraction of what Mexico’s forces got in 2010, at the outset of the Mérida Initiative (about $500 million). And it’s not clear even how much of 2021’s $100 million might get delivered, considering all of the bumps in the relationship between the Biden and López Obrador administrations.

Nonetheless, despite all the distrust, there will always be a bilateral security relationship between countries that share a 1,970-mile land border that’s the world’s most frequently crossed. Mexico is the United States’ number-two trading partner. Most undocumented migrants, and most of the illicit drugs on which more than 70,000 Americans per year overdose, pass through Mexico’s territory. The two countries are going to work together no matter what.

The question is whether they’ve been working together on the right things. A lesson of the Mérida Initiative years is that all four pillars are best fortified by civilian-to-civilian, not military-to-military, cooperation.

Read the whole article.

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

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

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

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: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

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 a transition period between the Trump and Biden 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.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

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

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

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