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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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.

Back at the border

CBP officers “metering” border-crossers last night outside the San Ysidro port of entry.
The San Diego River, very early this morning.

I’m here at the U.S.-Mexico border again. This is my fourth visit to San Diego and Tijuana this year. I’m spending most of this visit at a gathering of migration attorneys and experts from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The situation is grim right now, but there’s a lot of talk of solutions.

Street scene in Arauca, Colombia

Going over my photos from our early October visit to Colombia, I found this one, taken on October 3 from our car window, while driving through the hamlet of La Esmeralda, between Arauquita and Saravena, Arauca. This area is heavily under the influence of the ELN guerrilla group.

An unremarkable photo of a tidy small-town street. Until you zoom in:

You’ve got a mom and 2 cute kids, some street-sweeping equipment—and, below the window on the right, some stenciled ELN graffiti.

“Duque, president, don’t fool the people. ELN is present.”

A tranquil scene, marred by a message from a group responsible for, by all accounts we heard, the largest share of Arauca’s 130-plus homicides so far this year.

Notes from Chocó, Colombia

After our early October visit to Arauca, Colombia, WOLA colleagues and I spent several days in the middle section of Chocó. This department (province) borders both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as Panama, in Colombia’s far northwest. It’s been a week and a half since we completed this last leg of our trip. It took a while for me to type up these notes, in part because the situation I’m describing is so grim.

Chocó is big and sparsely populated, with about a half-million people in an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is beautiful and biodiverse. Most of its forests remain in pristine condition—for now—which helps make it one of the two or three rainiest places on the planet. It has thousands of miles of rivers.

The green line shows the routes we took in Chocó. It also shows how few roads (the red lines) exist in a department the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

It is also Colombia’s poorest department, with a very slight presence of the government. Over 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Chocó is mostly roadless, and the only way to get around is via rivers, especially the Atrato, which runs from about 40 miles east of the Pacific into the Caribbean. Fuel is expensive, and so is riverboat travel.

Quibdó, Chocó’s capital.

Because Chocó is hard to get around, our visit was limited to the middle and upper Atrato River regions, a few hours north and south of Quibdó, the capital. The Atrato, which flows from south to north, is a major vector for trafficking cocaine and other contraband, and has long been violently contested by drug traffickers and armed groups.

The middle and upper Atrato is living a tense calm, sandwiched between more violent regions of Chocó to the north and south. The lower Atrato river, flowing into the Caribbean in northern Chocó, is a site of intense fighting between the ELN guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which have gained control of principal towns. To the south of where we went, in Chocó’s San Juan and Baudó river valleys, fighting between the ELN and paramilitaries (and more recently, FARC dissident groups) has displaced thousands of people, mostly indigenous communities.

In the communities we visited in the middle and upper Atrato regions—just as in Arauca—security conditions aren’t as dire, but the armed groups are on the move. People told us they had lived a period of peace from about 2016 to 2018. This coincided with the latter phases of the FARC-government peace negotiations and the FARC guerrillas’ subsequent withdrawal and demobilization in Chocó. “With the Santos government and the peace process, we breathed a new breath of tranquility,” a social leader told us. Populations’ mobility increased, and forced recruitment and laying of landmines abated.

Boats parked by the Malecón, on the Atrato River in central Quibdó.

As in Arauca, we heard that this began to get worse in late 2018 and early 2019. As in Arauca, we heard that the ELN and a growing number of FARC dissidents are observing a loose and fragile non-aggression pact (at least in the middle region; in southern Chocó, they are fighting). As in Arauca, we heard of large-scale recent recruitment by all armed groups, mostly of minors. A few times, social and religious leaders in the upper and middle Atrato used the term “time bomb” to describe conditions: a fear that violence may soon explode to levels not seen since the armed conflict’s worst years. We heard similar concerns in Arauca.

In Chocó, the ELN guerrillas quickly filled the vacuums left by the demobilizing FARC’s 34th and 57th fronts. Their territorial control was quickly contested by paramilitaries, nominally affiliated with the “Gulf Clan” organized crime network. More recently, some demobilized FARC have rearmed, though it appears that most of the dissidents’ membership are new recruits. Many communities now live in contested territory, which is far worse than living under the monopoly control of a single armed group.

The guerrillas, dissidents, and paramilitaries fight for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitaries are also violently appropriating land deeded to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Quibdó, a frequent destination for displaced people, is hardly an oasis of calm. Urban violence, much of it gang or armed-group related, has left Quibdó with one of the highest homicide rates among Colombia’s mid-sized cities. Nearly all businesses in the capital must make extortion payments to someone.

A riverine checkpoint manned by Colombian Marines near Vigía del Fuerte and Bojayá.

Colombia’s security forces, to the extent they’re present, stand widely accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries, allowing them to pass through riverine checkpoints, sometimes in large numbers, and to bring their illicit products downriver or overland into Panama. We heard this denounced several times. “The paramilitaries pass by in boats easily,” a social leader told us. “There’s no trust with the security forces,” said another. “If you talk to them about something, the paramilitaries will get the information.… I see, and I stay quiet—that’s how the people have to be.”

For the military, collaboration with paramilitaries is not a counterinsurgency strategy, as it was in the 1980s-2000s. It’s mainly corruption: local personnel are getting something in return. And to some extent, it’s fear: what would actually happen to an army, police, or marine commander who challenged the paramilitaries or seized large amounts of their cocaine? Would forces based in faraway Bogotá, Medellín, or even Quibdó be able to protect that officer from retribution? It’s doubtful.

A boat’s-eye view of Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, across the Atrato River from Bojayá.

The resurgent ELN is treating the population brutally, controlling their movements, recruiting youth, and laying landmines. Residents of riverside communities say they are crueler than the FARC. Rapes of women, in particular, are happening “every day.” ELN leaders are ignoring communities’ attempts at dialogue. “With the FARC we knew who to talk to, now, we don’t. You get a phone number, nobody answers,” a leader told us.

Paramilitaries are similarly terrorizing the population. Combat and tight controls on people’s movement have confined indigenous communities up the Atrato River’s tributaries. Guerrilla landmines are doing the same. Confined communities are suffering malnutrition and lack of medical care. Selective killings are increasing. Paramilitaries are arriving in communities demanding that they turn over social leaders.

Names of the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre.

We visited the town of Bojayá, on the Atrato about 3 1/2 hours’ boat ride downriver from Quibdó. In May 2002, Bojayá was the site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Colombia’s conflict. During an episode of combat between the FARC and paramilitaries, much of the town’s population was taking refuge in its church. The FARC indiscriminately launched a gas-cylinder and shrapnel bomb into the church, killing 79 people, most of them children, and wounding many more. Even before the FARC peace talks concluded, local guerrilla leader Pastor Alape visited Bojayá and asked for forgiveness.

Interior of Bojayá’s rebuilt church, site of a 2002 FARC indiscriminate bombing that killed 79 civilians who had sought refuge there.

Bojayá’s victims have received some reparations from the government, including the building of a new town about a kilometer upriver (a town that lacks electricity much of the time), and money that many used to buy their own riverine passenger boats. Still, Bojayá’s residents feel unsafe as the ELN activates and paramilitaries move in from the north. Bojayá and the town across the river, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, sit on a junction of rivers that is strategic for trafficking and control of tributaries. Opogadó, about an hour downriver in Bojayá municipality, has seen a jump in selective killings this year. “Bojaya is remembered for a massacre. We don’t want there to be another,” said a local leader.

Names of the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre.

Chocó also has a lot of illegal gold-mining, causing severe environmental damage on rivers. Criminal groups, usually with acquiescence or collaboration from local political leaders, send dredges and backhoes up the Atrato’s tributaries, digging up river banks and dumping mercury into the streams. Some rivers have been “killed” by the churning of their banks, leaving them wide, shallow, and impassable. There is less mining now than before, thanks to a police crackdown, but some tributaries continue to suffer from it. And once gold is mined, it mixes in with “legal” gold and can’t be interdicted easily. The mining thrives with corruption, which allows it to operate in the open in some river tributaries.

Abandoned classroom next to the church in old Bojayá.

Political corruption is epic in Chocó. The two dominant political clans, the Sánchez Montes de Oca and Torres networks, face numerous accusations (and some convictions) of collaboration with paramilitary groups. With a well-oiled political machinery, their preferred candidates are likely to do well in the October 27 local elections.

Bojayá’s basketball court reverts to jungle.

Chocó also has coca, mainly in the San Juan and Baudó river regions south of where we were. But it is not a major producer: the UNODC measured 2,100 hectares in 2018, putting Chocó in 11th place among Colombia’s 32 departments, a reduction from 2,600 in 2017. Chocó is unlikely to be a major target of U.S.-backed forced eradication (or renewed aerial herbicide fumigation) campaigns.

Mural in the “new” Bojayá, just upriver from the old Bojayá.

I wish I could end these notes with something positive about what we saw. Chocó does have a very strong network of civil society groups, especially Afro-Colombian community councils, indigenous reserves, victims’ associations, the Catholic Church’s Quibdó Diocese, and—perhaps most vibrantly—women’s groups.

Many have been promoting a humanitarian accord, committing the ELN to respecting the civilian population, the government to protecting citizens and breaking up paramilitary groups, and both parties to restarting negotiations. But for now, with ELN peace talks over since January, the “Acuerdo Humanitario Ya” movement is having trouble getting traction. Meanwhile, the social leaders promoting peaceful solutions are keeping a lower profile amid worsening threats and attacks.

These civil society groups need all the solidarity and international accompaniment that they can get. Especially now, as the “time bomb” keeps ticking in Chocó.

Sunday morning in Bogotá

The conference I participated in is over (see coverage at the #FESSeguridadIncluyente Twitter hashtag). It was great to spend 2 1/2 days with people working on aspects of security policy from at least 10 other countries in the region. Well worth having to spend the weekend working.

I head back to Washington before dawn tomorrow.

Notes from Arauca, Colombia

Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.

Looking north at Arauca city. Beyond the buildings, to the horizon, is Venezuela.

Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.

A pretty common sight outside the main towns, where there’s no security-force presence.

The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.

Colombian Army armored personnel carrier outside Saravena.

A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.

Domingo Laín Front graffiti.

The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.

ELN banner on the highway between Arauquita and Saravena.

That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.

Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.

It seemed like ELN graffiti were all black or red, and all FARC dissident graffiti were blue. Perhaps that’s part of their non-aggression pact.

That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.

The Arauca River near Arauquita, with Venezuela in the background. The border is 200-plus-miles long, but there’s only one official border crossing.

Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.

One of several groups of Venezuelan migrants we saw walking along the highway outside Arauca capital.

I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.

Smuggled cheap Venezuelan gas is on sale all along the road.

Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)

The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.

Checkpoint near the Caño Limón oil installation.

Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.

We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.

Back in Colombia

Here’s the unremarkable view from my hotel near the Bogotá, Colombia airport. We just arrived last night, and in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to another region of the country. If I post from that region at all, it will be content that doesn’t reveal my location. I’ll be back in Bogotá on Friday.

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.

Notre Dame

There’s my wife and (now-teenage) daughter in 2010, one of two times I actually got invited to give a talk in France. Looking at one of my favorite buildings in the world, which was horribly damaged in a fire today.

I hope they rebuild it, even if it takes another 200 years. The 21st century is seeing too many historic landmarks destroyed, and not enough created.

Back to the border

I’m back from my third visit to the San Diego-Tijuana border so far this year. I spent much of Monday with U.S. authorities, CBP and Border Patrol. Tuesday was an excellent day-long meeting with non-governmental groups from all four border states. I went to Tijuana on Wednesday, and on Thursday met with civic leaders and experts in San Diego.

On Monday, an agent took me the entire length of the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana. Here, since the 2000s there’s been a double fence for much of the 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean to where the fence stops east of Tijuana, for a couple of miles, due to difficult terrain. I saw a lot of construction, as they’re replacing old fence very quickly, using money from the 2018 Homeland Security appropriation.

In one of the most densely populated areas of the entire U.S.-Mexico border, the need to spend minutes climbing a fence deters those border-crossers who’d want to avoid capture and disappear into San Diego’s southern suburbs. It doesn’t, however, deter asylum-seekers who do want to be apprehended, like thousands of children and parents from Central America. If your intention is to stand on U.S. soil, in the no-man’s land between the two rows of fencing, the outer fence is just a speed bump. The Border Patrol agent accompanying me said that the other day, a mother climbed over the 14-foot fence with a 1-year-old slung to her back.

The concertina wire that Trump’s military deployment put up can also be defeated. In this photo, it’s all tangled and pushed down by asylum-seekers climbing over. They shield themselves from the sharp edges by laying carpet over the wire, or simply risk cutting themselves.

Here’s that same spot viewed from the other side, in a hardscrabble Tijuana neighborhood not far from the San Ysidro port of entry.

The agent showed me the area where the fence ends, just east of the Nido de las Águilas neighborhood on Tijuana’s eastern periphery. Many asylum-seeking families come here too, but others have told me that this area is tightly controlled by organized crime, and migrants must pay a fee to access it.

Here’s the view behind my back when I took the previous picture. It’s the kind of terrain that resists fence-building. (And no markers to tell you where the border is.)

I went back to the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro port of entry, first thing Wednesday morning, around 7:00 AM when migrants gather to find out whether their numbers will be called from a notebook in which they’d inscribed themselves several weeks earlier. (Another line of newly arrived migrants waits to add their names.) The number denotes their turn to seek asylum the “proper” way, by entering the U.S. port of entry and presenting to a CBP officer. Last Wednesday, CBP allowed only 50 migrants to do this, which is a pretty typical number for San Ysidro.

Most asylum-seekers, though, are crossing elsewhere and turning themselves in to Border Patrol. After they process them and give them notices to appear before an asylum officer, CBP and ICE release asylum-seeking families into San Diego, where a network of charities (the San Diego Rapid Response Network) has set up a shelter to provide a short-term stay, meals, showers, clothing, and help arranging travel to where relatives or other contacts await them. (Those destinations, incidentally, tend to be agricultural areas and zones with a lot of construction—only sometimes the “sanctuary cities” where president Trump proposes to leave them.)

I pulled a few volunteer shifts with the San Diego shelter, mainly helping families get from the airport curb to their gates. The shelter was running low earlier in the week, with about 50 guests, but it had reached 300 the previous week, and by Thursday it was back up to 150. Nobody could explain the fluctuation.

I visited two Tijuana shelters, one run by a Catholic order and one by an NGO. Both were busy, but not full to capacity. Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border, San Diego is fourth in arrivals of families and fifth in unaccompanied children. Despite news of “caravans” in Tijuana, far more kids and parents are coming right now to El Paso, south Texas, and Yuma, Arizona.

Homeless men along the paved-over Tijuana River, about a half-mile south of the border. Many are deportees from the United States.

After three visits to the same area in four months, the border feels much more familiar. I still don’t really understand much of what goes on here, though. I don’t have a feel for the rhythms of work and life. I don’t understand how some residents are totally binational while others rarely even think about the other country in plain view on the other side.

Like a lot of northeastern cities—Washington included—this place combines a transient and diverse population, vast differences in wealth, and a big security presence. But it’s starker here: this is a place where semi-skilled people on one side of the line make $8.80 per day, and those on the other side make at least that in an hour. Where 14 people were killed in one April day one one side of the line, but it took two months last year to reach that total on the other side. The photos help, but it’s still really hard to describe this place to people here in Washington.

Top-line notes from my February 11-20 border trip

I spent the week of February 11, and some of this week, in San Diego and Tijuana. It was like holding down two jobs. Each day:

  • At 4:30am, I’d go to the airport and escort migrant families to the flights that, in most cases, relatives had purchased for them. The San Diego Rapid Response Network migrant shelter dropped them off at the terminal, and I’d accompany them through ticketing, the TSA, and to their gates. The shelter desperately needed airport guides: no family I accompanied had ever been in an airport before. I did a few families each day. By this week, San Diego TSA agents knew me by sight, and dreaded seeing me.
  • Then I’d go into either SD or TJ and do research, interviewing a few people working, in some capacity, on the humanitarian situation: shelters, experts, lawyers, journalists.
  • By 4:00pm, I’d head over to the shelter—that’s when DHS/ICE would start dropping off apprehended migrant families—and do whatever volunteer work was needed: copying immigration forms, sorting and handing out clothes, serving food, driving people to the bus station or, one time, the hospital. That shift ostensibly ended at 8:00 but sometimes ran longer—and ICE buses would make drop-offs as late as 11:00pm.

This trip multiplied the number of Central American migrants whom I’ve had the chance to get to know. I came away impressed with the work of the San Diego Rapid Response Network, who are doing a heroic job trying to keep up with the flow of families. Please consider donating to them, or buying things on their Amazon wishlist. It’s a lean, effective organization.

Here are a few observations from this visit. This is in raw form, as I just got back to Washington after midnight last night.

The San Diego Rapid Response Network receives the migrants whom ICE would otherwise be dropping off at the bus station, and provides them brief respite while they make travel arrangements. During my first week, I saw intakes range from a low of 40-something people per day to about 90. Two days this week, though, it shot up to way over 100. This requires use of overflow facilities. It’s not clear why the number surged.

Of the migrants I accompanied in the shelter and airport, most were from Honduras and Guatemala. The Hondurans (and a few Salvadorans) were largely from cities. Most Guatemalans, on the other hand, were from seriously remote parts of the western highlands, from Jutiapa to Quiché to Huehuetenango (I talked to people from at least seven departments of Guatemala, but none from the capital). The urbanites were more savvy and talkative. The rural dwellers were much quieter, more nervous and apprehensive; often, their Spanish was rudimentary.

Languages that people spoke into my phone, as they called relatives to let them know when they’d be arriving: Spanish, Haitian Creole, K’iche’, Kakchiquel, and Qan’jobal.

Lots of families had very young children, five or younger. One parent was the norm. Some had teenage kids, who usually did much of the communicating. A few babies were alarmingly listless and small for their apparent ages. Lots of kids coughing.

Many of the Guatemalans were from the northwestern department of Huehuetenango. Many had arrived in southern Mexico during the post-January 15 caravan/wave and had been given Mexican humanitarian visas.

I didn’t meet a single family who had waited on the “list” at the port of entry, though I heard many of them do pass through the shelter. Everyone who would talk about it said they went over a low part of the fence, or “in the mountains.” In most cases, Border Patrol was waiting on the other side. Some had only left their homes in late January or early February, crossed Mexico and gone in and out of Border Patrol custody—some made the whole trip in three weeks or less.

Will all of these people qualify for asylum? Probably not. Still, a significant portion no doubt have strong asylum claims, and it’s going to be up to judges to sort that out.

The “list” continues for asylum seekers waiting to present themselves at the Tijuana port of entry. The number being called was in the 1,960s on February 14. It was in the 1,650s on January 9. (Each number stands for 10 migrants, though many do not show when their names are called—they give up or cross elsewhere.)

The latest numbers on the “list,” posted outside Tijuana’s Chaparral port of entry.

I didn’t see anybody get “returned to Mexico” under the new DHS initiative called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” and challenged by a lawsuit filed last week. Those returns happen irregularly, at different times of day, and some days not at all. As of February 14, it had been done to 65 people, though it was accelerating with the February 13 return of 18 people, including the first families with children.

Few migrants with whom I spoke knew where in the United States they were, or how far from their intended destinations. Very few were headed to the west coast; nearly all were going east of the Mississippi.

None with whom I spoke had strong complaints about Border Patrol treatment. Mostly, agents were described as indifferent and ignoring them: no reports of rough or abusive treatment. A few sounded kind. Border Patrol did separate one migrant, though, from a 16-year-old cousin for whom that individual was a guardian. Many complained about the burritos that Border Patrol gives in custody, and said they were very hungry because there was nothing else to eat. Of those who told me, those who had spent the least amount of time in custody had spent just a day or two; a father and son said they had been together in custody for five days. Not clear whether that owed to Border Patrol suspicions about them, or to logistics.

The 17 or 18 shelters on the Mexican side are near capacity too, especially now that the Mexican government has closed the El Barretal facility that housed many of the October caravan members.

It’s incredible that these private/church run shelters are getting the burden of “Remain in Mexico” completely dumped on them. The Mexican government, which agreed to the short-term deportations, is putting up no resources to accommodate those who are returned.

The number of Mexican citizens deported to Tijuana is a steady 120 per day, with little variation. Deportees used to be most of the Tijuana shelters’ population, but with so many northbound migrant families, now only some of the shelters attend to deportees.

The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute is not allowing unaccompanied Central American kids to present at the border for asylum. If it apprehends them, the INM sends them to the DIF, the Mexican government child welfare institute. It’s not clear what happens next: it seems some may be sent back to their home countries, back to the danger that they’re fleeing. About 30 are in one Tijuana shelter, in a state of “limbo jurídico,” the shelter doesn’t know what to do with them. The unaccompanied children situation in Tijuana is untenable.

Operation Streamline—the criminal prosecution of migrants who cross between ports of entry—is much different in California’s federal criminal courts than in Arizona’s. The result is probably similar—guilty verdicts and jail time, not being applied right now to parents—but the process offers more of an opportunity to claim “not guilty” or at least to petition for a lighter sentence. Instead of 60-ish defendants saying “culpable, culpable” in succession, as in Arizona, the magistrate judge in San Diego asks 6-8 defendants at a time to each answer a series of questions: whether they were coerced, whether they are on medication affecting their judgment, whether they understand the consequences of a guilty plea, and a few more. The magistrate judge and the DOJ prosecutors seemed inclined to give “time served” sentences to all first-time offenders, and rarely threw the book at second-time offenders. Defense lawyers have a chance to seek lenience by describing some defendants’ life circumstances. Each group of 6-8 appeared to take 45-60 minutes to enter guilty pleas and receive sentences.

U.S. on the left, Mexico on the right.

Writing from a long Miami airport layover

I’m back from Havana. This is the second time I’ve participated in an annual “series of conversations” between U.S. and Cuban scholars and diplomats—the last time was 2013. It was an honor to be on the list of invited Americans, most of whom—unlike me—are Cuba specialists. It was a lot of panels, and I learned much about the sad state of U.S.-Cuba relations right now.

View of central Havana. A few more photos at the bottom of this post.

I did run off for several hours yesterday just to walk around Havana, to see what’s different. My sample size was small—about seven miles of wandering with eyes and ears wide open. But I came away with these superficial impressions:

  • Almost everybody seemed to have a smartphone. One popular thing among teenage boys (that’s who I saw doing it anyway) was to walk around playing music from a hand-held bluetooth speaker connected to one’s phone, 1980s boombox style.
  • About two weeks ago, the government started offering 3G data access. Until now, internet was mainly available at wifi hotspots. Like the hotspots, the 3G will be very expensive for any without access to dollars. Still, it will multiply the number of Cubans who are able to access reasonably fast internet.
  • The middle class neighborhoods of Havana (like Vedado, where I walked about 30 blocks) were in better shape than the last time I’d visited. Lots of improvements to houses and apartment buildings, only a few abandoned. Lots of “room for rent” signs.
  • In between those neighborhoods and the fancy, renovated/touristy “old Havana” on the eastern end of town, covering what must be four square miles, is the poorer part of the city’s central core, which looks exactly as grim and shabby as it did when I visited in 2000 and 2013. Central Havana is falling down, and the rot seems to be accelerating. It remains very densely populated, though. From their worn clothing, and from the things they were queuing up for—I saw a block-long bread line—residents of this area aren’t getting remittances from relatives in the United States. They’re firmly in the Cuban peso economy. This is hard: a young cab driver told me his mother, a full-time grocery employee, earns the equivalent of $15 per month—and her water bill alone is $2 per month.
  • Still, I didn’t see people who looked malnourished—in fact, overweight was more common. But fresh fruit and vegetables, and protein sources, are still scarce for those without access to dollars.
  • Neighborhoods are dotted with well-stocked public food markets and a few privately run stores (identified as running on “cuenta propia” basis). There were noticeably more of these than the last time I visited. But again, if you’re only earning pesos, these places are hard to afford.
  • The state-run stores continue to have bare shelves; I peeped into a couple whose entire inventory I probably could’ve bought for about $20 or $30. It’s so strange to see a store window featuring just a few bottles of laundry detergent stacked on top of each other.
  • Signs and murals from Cuba’s extensive network of neighborhood-watch associations, the “Committees in Defense of the Revolution,” are everywhere. I also saw a lot more images of Fidel Castro posted around the city. In 2013, before he died, it was unusual to see Fidel’s likeness on billboards and murals. You still don’t see Raul’s face often, and I didn’t see a single posted image of the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
  • Cuban officials talked a lot about an ongoing, neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort to get input on a new constitution. Apparently, people at these meetings are being encouraged to voice critical opinions. The input will somehow be taken into account as the government drafts a new constitution, which it will then put up to a referendum. There actually does seem to be real doubt about this referendum’s outcome. There’s some internal debate about whether to put gay-rights provisions into the draft constitution. Some fear that doing so might cause socially conservative and religiously fundamentalist Cubans to vote against the document, perhaps leading to its overall rejection.
Signs for neighborhood watch groups (“Committees in Defense of the Revolution”) are everywhere.
A sports car makes its incongruous way down a street in central Havana’s crumbling core.
The U.S. embassy, its staff depleted by the U.S. response to the so-called “sonic attack” health issues, looms in the background.
Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report (center, speaking) led off the first panel at the event in which I participated, analyzing the 2018 midterm elections.
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