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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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?
Here’s an analysis we posted yesterday in response to the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to “inessential” travel. As noted in yesterday’s podcast, such travelers apparently include threatened people seeking asylum or protection in the United States, who are being turned away.
The result is a potential death sentence, once COVID-19 really hits, for people confined in crowded shelters, encampments, and substandard housing in Mexican border towns. This could get really ugly.
Savitri Arvey of the University of California at San Diego’s U.S.-Mexico Center has co-written a series of reports documenting U.S. authorities’ two-year-old practice of “metering” asylum seekers along the Mexico border, forcing them in precarious conditions in dangerous Mexican border towns for weeks or months at a time.
The quarterly reports that Arvey and colleagues at the University of Texas’s Strauss Center produce are an essential source for understanding the number of people waiting, the number whom U.S. Customs and Border Protection allow to cross and petition for asylum, who is running the “waiting lists” on the Mexican side of the border, and what risks asylum-seeking families face wile they wait.
With the current COVID-19 border closure, Arvey says, U.S. authorities aren’t letting anybody cross to ask for asylum, which is a violation of the United States’ international law commitments, and probably of U.S. law.
I’ll be going back to an interview format for tomorrow’s podcast (if all goes according to plan). Today’s episode, though, is the audio track of a March 20, 2020 WOLA webinar about criminality and corruption in Venezuela, and the viability of a political exit to the crisis. This event is based on a March 11 report by WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde, who look at U.S. data and find that drug trafficking and other criminality and corruption, while big problems, are not so severe as to rule out negotiating a political solution with the Maduro regime.
In this event audio, Ramsey and Smilde are joined by Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of InsightCrime, and investigative journalist Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.
Here, at the WOLA Podcast, is a conversation with Alex Fattal, whose 2018 book “Guerrilla Marketing” tells the story of the Colombian military’s employment of advertising campaigns to convince guerrillas to demobilize during the country’s armed conflict. His work explores the overlap between national security, global capitalism, and “branding.”
Humanicemos is a non-governmental organization dedicated to clearing landmines in Colombia. Its personnel are former combatants from the FARC guerrillas, who demobilized after the signing of a 2016 peace accord and are now embarking on new lives. It gets support from the UN and the European Union, and works with Colombian government agencies.
This sounds like the sort of feel-good group that the U.S. government would want to support. But it does not support it. In fact, for U.S. officials, the members of Humanicemos are untouchable.
In January, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano writes at JusticeInfo, Angela Orrego of Humanicemos reported to a Bogotá hotel to participate in a 2020 planning meeting of groups working on de-mining.
But when Orrego and two of her colleagues from Humanicemos, one of those organizations created to destroy landmines, arrived, another government official barred them from entering.
“I’m very sorry,” she told them. The meeting was partially funded by the U.S. State Department, she explained, and that meant they could not participate.
At issue is a U.S. law prohibiting “providing material support to terrorists” (18 U.S. Code Sec. 2339A). Though it demobilized nearly three years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and all of its members are still considered to be terrorists. As a result, it is a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any FARC party members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.
As currently interpreted, the prohibition doesn’t apply to former FARC members who demobilized individually and have in some way renounced membership in the FARC political party. Individual demobilized receive some U.S. support through the Colombian government’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency.
The rest, though—the thousands of former FARC members who maintain some identity related with the FARC political party, like Ms. Orrego—are frozen out. It is illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.
This “material support” statute—or rather, the way it’s being interpreted right now—is more than an annoyance. It’s becoming an obstacle to U.S. interests in Colombia. The State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID all place a high priority on supporting “stabilization” in Colombia. That’s the term they and the Colombian government use to describe introducing a functioning government presence, with basic services and security, in vast ungoverned rural areas where coca and armed groups thrive. In these areas, thousands of former FARC members circulate freely today. Many have a strong interest in the goals of stabilization, which overlap closely with the first chapter of the peace accord (“rural reform”).
This means that today, U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are frequently running into engaged former FARC members, with bizarre results. In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told WOLA staff of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.
In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have had a sandwich or drink provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.
The FARC ceased to exist as an armed group in August 2017, after handing in 8,994 weapons and more than 938 arms caches to a UN mission. “Of 13,202 ex-combatants accredited before the accord’s signing,” the Colombian Presidency’s High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation reported last month, “12,940 remain committed to their reincorporation.” While some estimates of ex-guerrillas’ desertions from the peace process run as high as 830, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of former FARC members continue to be engaged with the process. That their mere presence can halt or water down U.S. support for important stability and demining efforts is an absurdity.
“The FARC are still part of the terrorist list,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a Colombian newspaper in February, “because, as we know, there are some dissident groups still involved in narcotrafficking and violence.” The dissident groups are a big challenge. Their approximately 2,400 members, scattered across about 23 groups, either refused to demobilize, abandoned the process later, or are new recruits. Their numbers are growing.
But the dissident groups aren’t the ex-FARC. In fact, they are one of the main threats to the security of ex-FARC fighters who have renounced violence. To date, about 186 demobilized FARC members have been killed. Of 93 cases for which Colombian government investigators have been able to attribute responsibility, FARC dissidents are the likely killers in 36—that is, 39 percent of cases. It makes no sense, as Ambassador Goldberg did last month, to conflate FARC party members who’ve renounced violence with the FARC dissidents who are attacking them. They don’t belong on the same list.
If this is truly the reason why peace process-respecting former guerrillas remain on the terrorist list, there’s an easy remedy that doesn’t necessarily even require removing a group called “FARC” from the terrorist list. The U.S. government just needs to reinterpret the existing statute in a way that distinguishes between dissident groups and demobilized guerrillas. If the current interpretation has painted U.S. programming into a corner, then that interpretation needs to be updated for the reality of Colombia in 2020.
That would mean screening out from U.S.-funded programs not everyone who is considered a FARC party member or affiliate, but instead only:
The few dozen ex-guerrillas who are wanted by U.S. courts for drug trafficking or kidnapping;
Those facing serious and specific accusations of war crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian government’s system of war crimes tribunals;
Those on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list; and
Those credibly alleged to be continuing to engage in illicit activity.
The number of individuals meeting these criteria is a small percentage of the total universe of non-dissident ex-guerrillas. For the rest, there should be no other barrier to participation in U.S.-funded programs. The remaining rank and file, trying to build a peaceful life and contribute to Colombia’s reconciliation, must lose their “untouchable” status.
Three years is enough: it is past time to realign the statute’s interpretation to match up with Colombia’s reality. And Congress should communicate to the State Department, in any way appropriate, that it does not object to this common-sense adjustment.
In response to the White House’s announcement yesterday that Colombian coca cultivation crept upward in 2019, I worked with WOLA colleagues to put out a good press release.
I wanted to do a bit more, and it seemed like a good moment to try something new: a rapid-response “explainer” video.
So here’s a quick explanation of Colombia’s coca phenomenon, and what hasn’t been tried (like, say, implementing the peace accord).
It turns out that, at least the first time one attempts this, it takes 2 and a half hours, between scripting and at least a dozen takes, to produce something reasonably coherent that fits within Twitter’s 2 minute, 20 second time limit for videos.
1,500 views on Twitter in 2 hours is pretty cool though.
At the bottom of each are shortened links to the documents from which we drew the information. The current collection of infographics covers the demobilized FARC population, U.S. aid, registered victims, U.S. cocaine prices, coca cultivation and eradication, cocaine seizures, homicides, kidnappings, and forced displacement.
The State Department’s 2021 foreign aid request to Congress, with much 2019 aid numbers. Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Fiscal Year 2021 (Washington: U.S. Department of State, February 11, 2020) <PDF from https://www.state.gov/fy-2021-international-affairs-budget/>.
The annual report to Congress from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the successor to the old U.S. Army School of the Americas). WHINSEC Fiscal Year 2019 Report (Fort Benning: Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, January 29, 2020) <PDF at https://fliphtml5.com/vdwkj/eyga/basic>.
Customs and Border Protection’s annual data dump of the previous year’s statistics on migrant apprehensions, staffing, migrant deaths, and a few other items. Fiscal Year 2019 Stats and Summaries (Washington: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, February 11, 2020) <Combined PDF file I assembled from documents at https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/media-resources/stats>.
The Defense Department’s explanation of how it will move $3.8 billion out of its budget to pay for border-wall building because Trump declared an “emergency” last year. Support for DHS Counter-Drug Activity Reprogramming Action (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense Comptroller, February 13, 2020) <PDF at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/execution/reprogramming/fy2020/reprogramming_action/20-01_RA_Support_for_DHS_Counter_Drug_Activity.pdf>.
Customs and Border Protection’s 2021 budget request to Congress. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2021 Congressional Justification (Washington: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2020) <PDF at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/6_u.s._customs_and_border_protection.pdf>. See also the Acting Commissioner’s February 27 testimony to House appropriators.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 2021 budget request to Congress. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2021 Congressional Justification (Washington: Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2020) <PDF at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/7_u.s._immigration_and_customs_enforcement.pdf>.
The Defense Department’s modestly useful, but mostly indecipherable, presentation of its overseas security assistance programs. Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 President’s Budget Justification for Security Cooperation Program and Activity Funding (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense, February 4, 2020) <PDF at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2021/fy2021_Security_Cooperation_Book_FINAL.pdf>.
The White House’s vague, brief “Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy.” National Drug Control Strategy Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy 2020 (Washington: Office of National Drug Control Policy, February 20, 2020) <PDF at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-Southwest-Border-Counternarcotics-Strategy.pdf>.
The White House’s vague, brief “National Interdiction Command and Control Plan.” National Interdiction Command and Control Plan (Washington: Office of National Drug Control Policy, February 20, 2020) <PDF at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-National-Interdiction-Command-and-Control-Plan.pdf>.
The Trump administration will be taking $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget this year to pay for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Very little of that money will get spent if he loses in November.) He’s been able to move some of that money into his wall—even though Congress never approved it—by declaring a “national emergency” and outlasting congressional efforts to disapprove that emergency (they need a two-thirds majority and only muster a simple majority).
Much of the Defense fund transfers, though, don’t even require an emergency declaration. The money can be moved under existing law. That’s what’s happening with the $3.8 billion that the Pentagon notified Congress this week would be moved from Defense into wall-building.
Here’s the notification PDF. The Trump administration is taking money out of the Joint Strike Fighter and other aircraft and weapons programs to pay for the wall, something that has even Republicans on the Armed Services Committee unhappy.
How can Trump do this? First, the Defense appropriations law allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year from one account to another. That’s Section 8005 of the annual appropriation. Here, he’s moving money from these weapons programs to the Pentagon’s counter-drug account. This vector was also used in 2019, applied to $2.5 billion in wall-building money. It shows up in yellow on this flowchart.
Second, now that it is “counter-drug” money, Trump can transfer it to the Homeland Security department to build a “counter-drug” wall. This is thanks to the nearly magical flexibility of the Defense Department’s counter-drug account, the product of a 1990 law. Let’s look at this law for a moment.
It was created at the height of the crack plague and the war on drugs. The George H.W. Bush administration and a Democratic-majority Congress had just made the U.S. military the “single lead agency” for interdicting cocaine overseas, and were clarifying what that meant. They agreed to give the Pentagon a bunch of new powers, including the ability to support U.S. law enforcement on U.S. soil if it was for the drug war. (The original law was Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It had to be renewed every few years. But the 2017 NDAA made the law permanent, as Section 284 of Title 10, U.S. Code.)
Ever since, a military component called Joint Task Force-North, operating from Fort Bliss outside El Paso, has been carrying out domestic support missions, mainly for CBP.
It gave the Defense Department the legal authority to spend its giant budget to build border barriers—as long as such barriers can be justified as “counter-drug.”
This same provision also allows the Defense Department to provide several types of counter-drug assistance to “foreign law enforcement agencies.” As a result, for the last 30 years, Latin American militaries and police forces have received billions of dollars in equipment upgrades, base facilities construction, training, and “intelligence analysis” services from the Defense Department.
This Defense Department’s counter-drug account—listed at the Security Assistance Monitor as “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance”—quickly became the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It was a big component of Plan Colombia and of the Mérida Initiative in Mexico.
The Special Forces teams that trained many thousands of Colombian troops at the outset of Plan Colombia? The maritime bases built along Honduras’s northern coast? The drone imagery shared with Mexican forces hunting for drug kingpins? The “Interagency Task Forces” operating along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, with the jeeps famously used to intimidate the CICIG? That’s been largely Defense money, not foreign aid budget money.
It flows independently of the State Department and foreign aid budget, with poor visibility over how it’s spent. We always have a very hard time learning how much Defense counter-drug money went as aid to which countries’ security forces in the previous year.
Now, that same legal provision is authorizing the building of border walls. Money gets taken from weapons systems, transferred to the counter-drug budget, then transferred to the Homeland Security Department budget to be used for wall-building. And there’s little Congress can do about it.
The process is under challenge in the courts. Last July, though, the Supreme Court allowed this “counter-drug” money to keep flowing while lower courts slowly deliberated.
Meanwhile, this move pits the military-industrial complex (all those fighter jets, Osprey aircraft, Humvees and other equipment being cut) against the border security-industrial complex (wall construction and related technology). These are mostly different contracting companies, bringing money and employment to different congressional districts. While I don’t have a dog in this fight at all, it’ll be interesting to watch the wrangling.