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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U.S. Policy

Dirt bikes and riot helmets are not humanitarian aid

Photo source: CBP.

A year ago, the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), came under fire amid revelations of miserable and unsanitary conditions in holding cells overcrowded with apprehended children and families.

At the time, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to provide more resources to deal with an influx of asylum-seeking migrants. Legislators included about $112 million for “consumables and medical care” to improve conditions for migrants being held for processing. Over opposition from progressive Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) agreed to approve a bill diminished by the Republican-majority Senate “in order to get resources to the children fastest.”

We’ve now learned that much of these resources didn’t reach the children at all.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a June 11 decision finding that instead of medicines, food, diapers, blankets, and other humanitarian needs, CBP diverted this “consumables and medical care” money into:

  • detention guard services;
  • boats;
  • all-terrain vehicles (ATVs); 
  • motorcycles;
  • dirt bikes; 
  • small utility vehicles;
  • passenger vans for moving detainees;
  • printers;
  • security camera systems;
  • speakers;
  • HVAC upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • sewer system upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • janitorial services;
  • canine supplies and services like dog food;
  • computer network upgrades “to analyze factual information in support of CBP’s border operations;”
  • the CBP-wide vaccine program for CBP personnel; and
  • “tactical gear and law enforcement equipment, such as riot helmets, and temporary portable structures.”

This is a stunning example of an agency defying the will of the legislative branch and its constitutional powers. The “consumables and medical care” outlay resulted from a long process of negotiation within Congress, and between Congress and the administration—but CBP just ignored it anyway. 

That it even sought, in the first place, to portray the items in the list above as meeting humanitarian needs indicates an agency that either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, what “humanitarian” means. That’s a huge problem, because much of CBP’s duties over the past several years have been humanitarian. Most of the undocumented migrants its agents have encountered have been children or families seeking refuge in the United States. These spending decisions evidence a lack of basic human empathy that call into question CBP’s management, training, and organizational culture. 

GAO reports that “CBP plans to adjust its account for several of these obligations.” It should do so for all of them, or its management should be held in violation of the Antideficiency Act for so nakedly defying the will of the American people’s representatives in the U.S. Congress. 

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.

2 videos in which I talk about U.S. troops in Colombia

Earlier today I joined Colombian Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino on Ariel Ávila’s El Poder program, on the YouTube channel of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. The subject was the recently announced deployment of a contingent of U.S. military trainers.

Later, I joined Daniel García Pena and Laura Gil for a discussion of the same subject hosted by the Colombian NGO Planeta Paz.

I cringe watching myself speak Spanish, but the subject matter is important. And my high-def webcam has turned out to be a good pre-quarantine investment.

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

I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her two weeks ago, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).

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

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

Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a human rights defender. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres – a much-admired environmental and indigenous leader from Honduras – was assassinated. Cáceres was a courageous leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for her efforts to stop dam construction on a river sacred to her Lenca people. But the assassinations of leaders like Berta are rarely investigated or prosecuted all the way to the masterminds. Government, criminal, and economic interests work to silence activists like her.

In this edition of Latin America Today, Nina Lakhani joins Adam Isacson for a discussion on her new book out on June 2, Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso). Lakhani is a veteran journalist whose work has brought to light corruption, state-sponsored violence, and impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. She is currently the Environmental Justice correspondent for The Guardian U.S.

Here, Lakhani talks about why she chose to write about Berta and her lifelong activism, helps us understand the multifaceted Honduran context and why social leaders like Berta are targeted, and provides in-depth analysis of her investigations into Berta’s assassination. The conversation ends with Lakhani’s outlook on how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections may affect accountability on what she calls “impunity on every level.”

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

Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org / versión en español)

On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.

What is an “SFAB?”

On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country. 

Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”

Is this a big deployment? Is it new?

A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.

While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations. 

Is this about Venezuela?

U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.” 

The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.

If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.

The U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?

The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.

The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:

  • Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
  • The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
  • The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
  • The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
  • The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.

Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.

Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers. 

That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.

The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.

We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.

Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?

The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.

The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up. 

If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.

The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.

Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”

Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.

It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.

This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela

It’s great to have two Venezuela experts on staff to explain what’s happening there. With great nuance, rare clarity, and zero shouting.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. The text from the WOLA landing page is below.

This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)

This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.

Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde co-manage WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Also mentioned in the podcast is a May 2020 paper that both co-authored in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which explores the recent history and theory of negotiation efforts in Venezuela, as well as prospects and necessary conditions for a negotiated solution today.

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

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

It’s not every day you get to record a podcast with a member of Congress. I enjoyed sitting down virtually this morning with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Colombia. He was fired up about the outrageous recent scandal involving U.S.-aided army intelligence units spying on Colombian reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, and others.

He calls here for a suspension of U.S. military aid and a much clearer U.S. commitment to implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accords and protecting its threatened social leaders.

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

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

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

WOLA Podcast: “How do we define success?” Jonathan Rosen on governments’ approaches to organized crime

I had a fun conversation yesterday with Jonathan Rosen. Here’s the description from WOLA’s site:

Jonathan Rosen, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, has published a large body of books, articles, and edited volumes in the past several years on drug policy, organized crime, corruption, state failure, and violence in the Americas.

Here, Dr. Rosen shares a strong critique of “mano dura” approaches to crime and violence, the disjointed and short-term nature of U.S. policymaking toward Latin America, and the persistence of counter-drug strategies that simply don’t work.

He also discusses his experience as an expert witness in about 100 asylum cases involving threatened Latin American citizens in immigration courts around the country.

Listen above or download the .mp3 file.

At wola.org: A New Scandal Underscores Colombia’s Stubborn Inability to Reform Military Intelligence

Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.

Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.

Here’s what I came up with. The whole 4,000-word (but not boring!) commentary is at WOLA’s website.

Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.

Semana has a long record of revealing malfeasance in the security forces. The last five covers are from the past twelve months.

This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.

The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.

Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.

What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.

Continue reading at WOLA’s website.

WOLA Podcast: “These moments of social resistance are never moments. They have long histories.”

Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.

Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Colombia Pushes Coca Eradication During COVID-19 Pandemic

Like the title says: not only is Colombia going full-throttle on manual eradication operations—U.S.-funded, U.S.-pressured manual eradication operations—in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.

The second killing happened yesterday (Wednesday), and we put together this WOLA statement.

Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.

COVID-19 Reveals the Full Trump Immigration Agenda, and Puts Lives Directly at Risk

Here’s a cross-post of a piece about the border right now that I wrote for Brújula Ciudadana (Citizen Compass), the publication of Mexico’s Iniciativa Ciudadana. They published it yesterday. (Hay también una versión en español.)

COVID-19 Reveals the Full Trump Immigration Agenda, and Puts Lives Directly at Risk

Adam Isacson

Director for Defense Oversight
Washington Office on Latin America

All around the world, leaders are seizing the COVID-19 emergency as an opportunity to grab authoritarian power. In the United States, this is happening in the arena of border and migration policy. The coronavirus crisis is allowing extremists in the Trump White House to make their full agenda a reality, without any discussion, debate, or oversight.

Before, there were some brakes. Congress wouldn’t approve requests to fund wall-building or expanded detention. Courts, at their slow tempo, were halting some excesses. Laws and treaty obligations were still permitting some threatened migrants to enter the country.

Now, the brakes are off. The hardest line is, for now, official policy. Most urgently, some of what is happening threatens to make the coronavirus emergency worse, creating new disease vectors in the United States, Mexico, and Central America.

The list of measures is long and alarming.

First, for the first time since passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, there is no right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, at least for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The border’s land ports of entry are closed to all without documents: the practice of “metering” that caused migrants to add their names to waiting lists throughout Mexican border towns is suspended, as zero people per day are now admitted to petition for asylum. Under a secretive policy called “Operation Capio,” border authorities are expelling all apprehended Mexicans, and nearly all Central Americans, back into Mexico in an average of 96 minutes. (Mexico has agreed to take Central Americans on a case-by-case basis, but in practice is accepting nearly all of them.)

These “expelled” migrants do not get a chance to ask for asylum. If one specifically raises the possibility of being tortured if returned-Border Patrol agents aren’t required to ask-then a Border Patrol supervisor, not a trained asylum officer, will decide whether his or her claim is credible. It is still not clear what is happening to the approximately 15 percent of apprehended migrants who are not Mexican or Central American, mainly Cubans, Haitians, Brazilians, Venezuelans, and people from other continents.

Second, even unaccompanied Central American children are being returned, though a 2008 law specifically states that unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries must be admitted as potential trafficking victims. The Trump administration’s hardliners always detested this law, viewing it and other asylum statutes as “loopholes” for evading immigration restrictions. They have a legal pretext for the actions they are taking now: a law from 1944 that allows U.S. authorities to “suspend the right to introduce” people into the United States “in the interest of public health.” Though nothing in this law places it above the Refugee Act’s requirement to take in asylum seekers with credible fear, that is how the Trump administration is interpreting it: as a law that supersedes all others in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, people in real need of protection at the U.S. border, people who could die without asylum, are being summarily expelled.

Third, the asylum hearings of those forced to “Remain in Mexico” have been postponed at least until May. This might make some sense, as courtrooms full of people are nowhere to be during a pandemic. But the result is that families are being forced to report to the border crossings on their assigned dates, only to be handed a piece of paper with a new hearing date far into the future. Their wait, in border cities where crimes against migrants are frequent, is being further prolonged. While they wait, many are packed into substandard housing, in close proximity to people who may be infected with COVID-19. Many are crowded into shelters run by charities, some of which are closing their doors out of health concerns. The worst-off are subsisting in tent cities, like the one in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where about 2,500 people are awaiting their asylum dates with poor sanitation and little clean water.

Fourth, deportations are continuing in Mexico and Central America, with little reduction. ICE aircraft are arriving in San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, and Guatemala City every day or two, despite these countries’ closure of borders and air traffic to prevent introduction of COVID-19. Some of those aboard these flights are people being quickly expelled from the border. Others were arrested in the interior of the United States and spent time in detention. ICE is not testing deportees for coronavirus infection-the United States lacks testing capability. Agents are merely checking them for high fevers before boarding them on the planes. There is a very high likelihood of sending back people who are infected with COVID-19 but asymptomatic. As of early April, two deportees to Guatemala had tested positive, at a time when the entire country had only detected about sixty cases.

Fifth, migrant detention continues. As of the end of March, the Los Angeles Times reported, 38,058 migrants were detained in ICE’s network of mostly privately run detention centers around the country. Of these, more than 60 percent had nothing on their criminal records, and 6,166 were asylum seekers. Some were elderly, and many had pre-existing medical conditions. Most are living in crowded conditions, unable to practice social distancing. As of early April, 13 ICE detainees had tested positive for coronavirus, and detention center populations fear an explosion of cases. For some detainees, the wait for an asylum decision could become a death sentence.

Sixth, border wall construction has not slowed. Much of what is being built right now is happening in areas of southern Arizona and New Mexico that are biodiverse, environmentally fragile, sacred to indigenous people, and far from most population centers. Because of their remoteness, the private contractors building the wall are imported from elsewhere in the United States. They come to these small desert towns for a few days, where they live and eat together, then return to their home states, only to come back again. The possibility of these workers introducing COVID-19 to these towns, and taking it back to their home states, rises sharply every day that wall-building continues.

Seventh, about 540 new troops, active-duty military personnel, are headed to the border. A U.S. official told Reuters that the troops are needed because “the Trump administration worries the pandemic could further depress Mexico’s already troubled economy and encourage illegal immigration.” The troops will increase an already existing military presence of as many as 5,000 along the border, including about 3,000 National Guardsmen (military forces under command of state governors), who carry out logistical and planning duties, perform some construction (including superficial tasks like painting parts of the border wall), and include a contingent of military police. Maintaining this presence has already cost over $500 million since October 2018. This is very rare for the United States: since the 1878 passage of the Posse Comitatus Act, there are extremely few examples of this many U.S. troops operating for this much time on U.S. soil. Though the Defense Department seeks to minimize the troops’ contact with citizens, this highly politicized deployment sets a troubling precedent for the future of democratic civil-military relations in the United States.

Eighth, the Trump administration continues to encourage Mexico to continue its crackdown on migration, maintaining high levels of apprehensions and people in detention. The May 2019 threat of tariffs, tied to Central American migration through Mexico, continues to weigh heavily over the bilateral relationship. Mexican National Guardsmen continue to line the northern and southern borders. Mexico’s migrant detention centers continue to be about half full nationwide, with migrants unable to isolate, and those near the Guatemala border are likely more crowded than the national average. Since mid-March, migrants confined in these spaces have protested conditions, worried about the likely spread of COVID-19. Guards, including members of the National Guard, have met them with truncheons, tasers, and pepper spray.

This is a very grim list of measures. The COVID-19 emergency response is showing us what the Trump immigration agenda would look like under normal circumstances, if the administration were empowered to carry it out fully. It amounts to one of the gravest human rights crises in the Americas today, and it is mostly happening on U.S. soil.

In the name of human rights, all of these extreme policies need to stop. In the context of a pandemic, though, there are few political, legislative, or judicial tools available to compel Stephen Miller and the Trump administration’s cohort of immigration extremists to stand down.

Still, the danger of spreading the pandemic demands, urgently, that several of these measures stop immediately. Those are the policies that, as of this article’s writing in early April 2020, are actively spreading the coronavirus and threatening the health and safety of people in the United States as well as in Mexico and Central America. They must stop, and the U.S. government needs to implement common-sense alternatives for the duration of the crisis, if not afterward.

First, stop expelling asylum-seekers. Many have nowhere else to go: someone who is threatened in San Pedro Sula or Chilpancingo, then expelled to a Mexican border town, is effectively marooned in that border town and very vulnerable to the virus when it comes. A large majority of asylum seekers have relatives in the United States with whom they could stay and practice safe social distancing. They do not have such support networks in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, or Nuevo Laredo. Those who have a place to go should be paroled into the United States to await their hearings: it could save their lives.

The same goes for “Remain in Mexico” victims in the borderlands. Those who have family members in the United States who can take them in, and an impending court date, should be allowed in. It is urgent right now to reduce crowding in Mexico’s border cities, especially the tent encampments, before COVID-19 cuts through the asylum-seeking community like a chainsaw.

“But wait,” some might object. “If we parole these people in, we may never see them again. They’ll just join the undocumented population in the United States.” That concern is resolved by expanding alternatives to detention programs: the assignment of case officers who not only check in with them regularly to determine their location, but who ensure that they report to their hearings and are receiving due process in the U.S. immigration court system.

When the U.S. government has tried them, alternatives-to-detention programs have been remarkably successful. A much-cited example, among others, is the ICE Family Case Management Program, which the Obama administration piloted during its second term. The FCMP cost only US$36 per day, and 99 percent of families showed up for their court appearances. Another alternatives-to-detention effort, ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, also achieved a 99 percent appearance rate, according to 2013 data, using a combination of telephone check-ups, in-person visits, and GPS monitoring.

Alternatives to detention are the obvious response to mass detention, too, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. All in ICE’s jails who have no serious crimes on their records, and who have a relative or similar contact with whom they may practice shelter-in-place and social distancing, should be paroled into the country with close monitoring from an alternatives to detention program. This especially applies to those over 60 years of age and those with other medical conditions, who face serious probability of death if they contract the coronavirus in a detention center.

Common sense and decency also demand a moratorium on deportations, at least until expanded testing and herd immunity start to bring the COVID-19 situation under control. Sending dozens of people per day to countries with very weak public health systems-people who’ve been at close quarters in detention centers and on aircraft-threatens to create disastrous disease vectors. The deportation flights can be put on hold, as the Guatemalan government has been imploring the United States to do.

And of course, wall construction should stop during this emergency: the barrier’s itinerant construction workers need to stay in one community, practicing social distancing, before they spread the virus any further. Obviously, there are many reasons why wall construction should stop permanently, beyond the pandemic emergency, but that’s a debate that continues in the U.S. Congress and court system.

To allow these extreme policies to continue, even as the United States, Mexico, and Central America continue to climb an exponential growth curve of infection, is an act of gross irresponsibility. The deadly consequences could be something that reverberates throughout the U.S. relationship with Latin America for a generation or more. Rather than cynically seize on a public health emergency to pursue a political agenda that most U.S. citizens do not support, the Trump administration urgently needs to stand down, even temporarily, to avoid large-scale, preventable loss of life.

Podcast: Latin America and the Crisis of Globalization and Multilateralism

Here’s a tri-continental podcast that I recorded yesterday and posted today. It was fun to do, especially since the tech mostly held up.

paper published in March by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Latin America Regional Security Program takes stock of the complicated geopolitical, institutional, economic, and social moment that Latin America and the Caribbean today. It examines the crisis of democratic institutions, the United States’ hard turn toward unilateralism, the growing roles of China and Russia, and the impending effect of phenomena like climate change, automation, and artificial intelligence.

This podcast talks about all of this with the paper’s three authors, scattered across three continents:

  • In Santiago: Marcos Robledo, co-director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation project, is a Chilean security expert who served in Chile’s defense ministry, including as a vice-minister, during Michelle Bachelet’s time as minister and as president.
  • In Washington: Rebecca Bill Chávez is a defense expert who served in the Pentagon as deputy secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs during Barack Obama’s second term.
  • In Oslo: Mariano Aguirre, former director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, NOREF, who has worked for the UN Resident Representative’s office  in Bogotá and managed research efforts in Spain, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Aguirre is a member of WOLA’s board of directors.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Lars Schoultz: “I Wrote This Book for People Like You”: Lars Schoultz takes on U.S. “uplifters” of Latin America

I’ve been reading Lars Schoultz’s scholarship on U.S.-Latin America relations since I was in college, and I was delighted that he would record a podcast.

The longtime professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published an award-winning book in 2018, In Their Own Best Interest. In it, he takes to task U.S. policymakers and advocates who seek to “uplift” or “improve” Latin American nations, viewing them as part of a very long tradition going back to imperialists of the gunboat diplomacy era. He notes that some countries are hardly better off after a century of U.S. “uplifting,” and worries about how our grandchildren will view the policies that we advocate for today.

Is WOLA guilty of this? While I frankly don’t see much of myself in Schoultz’s characterization of our work, I really enjoyed engaging him in this lively and very thought-provoking discussion. I think you’ll like this one a lot.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

At wola.org: Putting U.S. Counterdrug Operations in the Caribbean in Context

Hours after Wednesday’s White House announcement of a big military deployment to Latin America, ostensibly to stop drugs, I got together (virtually) with Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde from WOLA’s Venezuela program. We came up with a list of questions, then started typing what we know, and what we need to know, into a Google Doc.

The result is a memo where we come up with some fact-filled, and pretty skeptical, answers to the following questions. Read the memo here. It’s a good read, I promise.

  • Is President Trump’s announcement of new deployments actually “new?”
  • Is this tied to the coronavirus outbreak?
  • Is this deployment linked to Venezuela’s crisis?
  • How important is Venezuela to the transnational drug trade?
  • How have other countries reacted to the news of the U.S. deployment?
  • How is geopolitics involved?
  • Is the U.S. government preparing for an invasion like in Panama 1989?
  • What are the risks associated with this policy?
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