Geoff Thale has been with the Washington Office on Latin America since 1995, and has served as its president since 2019. Much has changed about advocacy and foreign policy since the beginning of his time in Washington. In this conversation, Adam and Geoff discuss the evolution of human rights advocacy towards Latin America, WOLA, and the opportunities and challenges for human rights advocates working on the region.
It looks like U.S. authorities encountered migrants 210,000 times in July at the U.S.-Mexico border. I think the number will increase. The pandemic is intensifying a pattern that we already saw in 2014, 2016, 2018-19: a jump in people fleeing several Latin American countries, punctuated by cruel, ineffectual crackdowns. It’s not just here: lots of countries in the region are absorbing migrants from Venezuela, Central America, Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere.
Maureen Meyer and I just published an explainer laying out why, as the Biden administration reckons with this foreseeable but large new migration event, it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need another crackdown. This is a time to show the world how high levels of migration can be managed through increased processing and increased adjudication capacity.
We should be able to consider large numbers of protection claims, promptly and efficiently, without locking people up. The process should be so bureaucratic and boring that FOX News can’t even generate much outrage about it.
Anyway, this new, long-ish report explains the trends the border is facing right now, and lays out the outlines of how to handle it without freaking out or cracking down. It’s full of helpful graphics and we wrote it in the plainest English that we could manage.
Please share it—there’s a lot of nativist, even white supremacist garbage analysis out there, and we need to drown it out with facts.
We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.
officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.
This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.
To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.
Many thanks to Camila Asano, the program director at the São Paulo-based think tank Conectas, for joining WOLA’s podcast. Her country is going through a historically difficult—tragic—moment, and she explains why civil society there is a last bulwark against authoritarianism. We must accompany and protect many very brave people during this dark moment.
Thanks as well to WOLA Program Assistant Moses Ngong, who is playing a bigger role in helping me put these podcasts out. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.
Brazil is the second largest country in the hemisphere, but its many complex issues rarely make news in the U.S. In this episode of the WOLA podcast, Camila Asano, Director of Programs at the Brazilian human rights NGO Conectas, joins Adam Isacson and Moses Ngong to discuss recent and ongoing attacks on human rights and democracy in Brazil.
The conversation covers a handful of key issues facing the country today, including:
How President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has worked to antagonize and criminalize human rights defenders
What the impact of COVID has been on the country, and the government’s poor response
President Bolsonaro’s authoritarian actions attacking democracy and consolidating power
I recorded a very good conversation with my colleague Gimena Sánchez, who I don’t think has slept since Colombia’s protests—and the government’s crackdown—began on April 28. She does a masterful job explaining what’s going on. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.
Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.
This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.
You may have seen that Colombia’s transitional justice tribunal recently found that the country’s armed forces likely killed a shocking 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008. WOLA is putting on an event today at 4:00 Eastern to talk about it, and I’ll be presenting. Here’s the text of the announcement at WOLA’s website, where you can RSVP:
**Due to emergency security concerns, Sergeant Mora will not present during this panel**
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) cordially invites you to our webinar:
Afro-Colombian Sergeant Carlos Eduardo Mora of Colombia’s 15th Mobile Brigade of Ocaña observed inconsistencies in the combat deaths that members of his battalion were reporting in their counterinsurgency statistics. In 2008, Mora denounced his colleagues for killing civilians and later passing them as enemy combats. These extrajudicial killings were widespread throughout the country and became nationally known—and erroneously termed as “false positives”—when a scandal involving 19 murdered young men from the southwestern Bogotá neighborhood of Soacha was undercovered.
Mora has suffered greatly for his role as a whistleblower, having faced multiple types of retaliation like public humiliation and death threats. His security situation became so serious that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a resolution in 2013 urging the Colombian state to protect Mora and his family.
In February, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP)—Colombia’s transitional justice tribunal devised in the 2016 peace accord—revealed that the Colombian armed forces committed at least 6,402 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2008. In light of these disturbing revelations, WOLA’s Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli will moderate a panel to discuss the role of individuals like Sergeant Mora and hear from two human rights and U.S. military aid experts. Alberto Yepes, Coordinator for the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, CCEU) coalition, will discuss the implications of the JEP’s recent order on extrajudicial killings. Adam Isacson, WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight, will discuss U.S. funding to Colombia’s armed forces and what actions can be taken to guarantee justice in these horrific cases.
What’s happening at the border right now is concerning: there are bottlenecks in caring for unaccompanied minors. But it’s not a crisis. If anything, the crisis is in the large number of people who continue to be expelled, within hours, without a hearing.
Four of us at WOLA just published an explainer that I think is pretty good. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really read the whole thing, it’s got a lot of good graphics in it.
It may seem ironic, but even as it carried out the cruelest anti-migration policies in decades, the Trump administration presided over the largest flows of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-2000s.
This continued through Donald Trump’s last months in office, which saw migration rise sharply even as stringent pandemic measures made the pursuit of asylum impossible. This shows the futility of declaring war on asylum, and the inevitability of large migration flows at a time of overlapping security, economic, political, public health, and climate crises.
The jump in migration of Trump’s final months continued accelerating during Joe Biden’s first two months in office. This is happening even as Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps in place “Title 42,” a probably illegal Trump-era pandemic provision that expels most migrants within hours, regardless of their protection needs.
Is there a “crisis” of people attempting to cross the border?
The increased numbers of people crossing the border right now is something that border experts have predicted for some time now. The roots of what is happening are in the Trump administration policies that caused massive numbers of people to be stuck on the Mexican side of the border—policies like “Remain in Mexico” (which forced over 70,000 asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexico border cities) and “metering,” a practice under which U.S. border authorities place severe limits on who is allowed to approach ports of entry and ask for asylum, in violation of U.S. and international law.
The increased border crossings was predictable, not because of Biden administration policies like winding down “Remain with Mexico,” but because of the dangers put in place by Trump’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence.
Of the 114 months since October 2011 for which WOLA has detailed monthly data, February 2021 saw the third-most Border Patrol encounters with migrants. (The actual number of people was probably much lower since, as noted below, many migrants expelled under Title 42 attempt to re-enter shortly afterward.)
While third-most sounds like a lot, the impact on border authorities’ workload is minimal because Title 42 persists. Of the 96,974 migrants whom Border Patrol “encountered” in February, it quickly expelled 72 percent—down only slightly from the end of the Trump administration, which expelled 85 percent in December and 83 percent in January. The remainder whom Border Patrol actually had to process last month—26,791 migrants—was the 77th most out of the past 114 months. Being in 77th place hardly constitutes a crisis.
There is a serious capacity issue right now, though, for one especially vulnerable category of migrant: children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
We’re 3 weeks into the Biden administration. What’s happening with Trump’s border wall? How much got built? How much did it cost? How much is left unspent? How can we go about taking this down, or at least taking the most harmful parts down?
Here’s a new analysis at wola.org that shares answers to all these questions, to the best of my current knowledge based on a lot of document-digging and coalition work. Not to mention the diligent editing, presentation improvements, and communications support from the great team at WOLA.
Here’s a brief excerpt of the boring, numbers-filled part, plus a great infographic that our communications team designed. But do read the whole thing at WOLA’s website.
What got built, and what funds remain
The Trump administration managed to build 455 miles of wall along the border before January 20, leaving 703 of the U.S.-Mexico border’s 1,970 miles fenced off in some way. From past U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) updates we estimate that, of those 455 miles:
49 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.
In all, then, the Trump administration built about 242 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. The vast majority of the 455 miles are in Arizona and New Mexico.
The full amount of funding devoted to construction has totaled$16.45 billion between fiscal years 2017 and 2021. It was to build about 794 miles of wall. (That would be $20.7 million per mile.) Congress specifically approved only about one third of that amount ($5.8 billion). Trump wrested the remaining two-thirds from the budgets of the Defense and Treasury Departments.
Of that $16.45 billion, the amount that remains unspent—or that could be clawed back by canceling construction contracts—remains unclear. It’s one of the main things the new administration is trying to find out.
In-depth: Where the money for the wall came from
$3.6 billion were taken in February 2019 from the Defense Department’s military construction funds. This was to build about 175 miles of border wall, of which about 87 had been completed as of January 8.
In late 2018 and early 2019, Donald Trump allowed parts of the federal government to shut down for 35 days rather than sign a 2019 budget bill that didn’t meet his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding. Trump finally gave in, but shortly afterward—on February 15, 2019—he declared a “national emergency” that, he alleged, gave him the authority to transfer money from the Defense budget to build border barriers.
The Pentagon saw $3.6 billion of its military construction plans cancelled or delayed as funds were transferred to the Homeland Security Department to build fencing.
Though both houses of Congress twice voted to disapprove this “emergency,” they could not muster the two-thirds vote necessary to override Trump’s vetoes of their disapprovals.
A challenge to this emergency continues to work its way through the courts, but the Supreme Court allowed building to continue while this happens.
Because these funds were not appropriated by Congress, President Biden is not required to keep spending this money—and his January 20 proclamation, notified to Congress on February 10, rescinds Trump’s emergency declaration.
$6.331 billion ($2.5 billion in 2019 and $3.831 billion in 2020) were transferred from elsewhere in the Defense Department budget into the Department’s counter-drug account. To do so, Trump used a recurring authority in the Defense Appropriations law (Section 8005), which allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year between Defense budget accounts to respond to “unforeseen” requirements. This maneuver was to provide funds to build about 291 miles of border wall, of which about 256 had been completed as of January 8.
The Defense budget can be used to build walls, as long as the Department can claim there’s a counter-drug reason for doing so. Section 284(b)(7) of Title 10, U.S. Code, a piece of drug-war legislation that first passed a Democratic-majority Congress in 1990, allows the Defense Department to use its budget for “construction of roads and fences and installation of lighting to block drug smuggling corridors across international boundaries of the United States.”
The Trump administration filled up the Defense counter-drug account with wall-building money by transferring it, in 2019 (here and here) and 2020, from many other defense priorities, ranging from equipment to aircraft procurement and much else.
A challenge to this “unforeseen” transfer continues to work its way through the courts, but the Supreme Court allowed building to continue while this happens.
Because these funds were not appropriated by Congress, President Biden is not required to keep spending this money.
$601 million were taken in 2019 from the Treasury Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the proceeds from assets seized from accused criminals or terrorists. It’s not clear how many miles of wall this has built or may build, as CBP’s reporting lumps this money together with congressionally appropriated money for 2019 discussed in the fourth category.
Congress appropriated $5.841 billion in the Homeland Security components of the federal budgets for 2017 ($341 million) and 2018-2021 ($1.375 billion each). These appropriated funds, plus the Treasury funds in category three, were to pay for about 328 miles of wall (extrapolating from CBP’s most recent update and a January 20 Washington Post estimate), of which 110 miles have been built.
Nearly all of what remains unbuilt from this category is in Texas, where most land abutting the border is privately owned.
Because these funds were appropriated by Congress to build a “barrier system” at the border, the Biden administration needs to figure out how to avoid spending them on Trump’s border wall. These provisions, the Washington Post reported, “would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles of border wall.”
The four categories of border wall funding all add up to $16.373 billion (about $77 million short of the amount that a Senate staffer cited to the Associated Press on January 22). It would pay for 794 miles of wall, of which 455 were built.
After a very successful event today, we now have, on WOLA’s YouTube page, four hours of discussions of the current moment with premier experts in civil-military relations from 11 Latin American countries. It’s in two parts: today’s discussion, and an earlier one, with a similar format, hosted in September.
Taken together, they are a tremendous resource for understanding this uneasy, precarious moment in the hemisphere’s politics and democratic transitions (or reversions). Sort of like two focus groups taking the pulse of things, shared with the public.
This is raw video in Spanish, though. Some audiences, like busy policymakers with competing commitments and responsibilities, won’t watch all of it. We need to repackage it, perhaps in a variety of formats. I need to figure out over the holidays how best to do that.
In the meantime, though, here are the event videos, which are really worth your time. In reverse chronological order:
That was a great discussion yesterday. As you could see if you “attended,” our partners in Colombia are very concerned about what might happen if the U.S-funded program of aerial glyphosate fumigation returns to Colombia’s coca-growing zones, as the Bogotá government is promising may happen in two months or less.
I’m pleased that several dozen people tuned in to the live event. Here is the video. There’s no translation track, so you have to be comfortable with Spanish.
We’ll keep making noise about this, because it’s bad policy, it’s going to harm people, and even if it temporarily brings the “hectare” number down, it will do so at great cost to social peace and to Colombia’s peace process.
I continue to be very concerned about what COVID-19 is going to mean for the role of militaries in Latin America’s democracies, many of which were already having a hard time consolidating.
We had an event about this in September with experts from five countries, with our friend Claudio Alonso, an Uruguayan defense expert, moderating. (English highlights video here.)
Camilo will be back with us on December 11 at 12:00 noon Eastern for another round of conversations, this time with experts from six different countries. Please join us. The event will be in Spanish. Here’s the “save the date” information from WOLA’s site:
Las relaciones cívico-militares en América Latina después de nueve meses de pandemia
La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) cordialmente le invita a un webinario:
WOLA auspiciará una discusión necesaria de los últimos cambios de las relaciones cívico-militares regionales. Escucharemos presentaciones breves de expertos sobre cinco países, seguidas por una discusión abierta.
Detalles del evento: Viernes, 11 de diciembre de 2020 12:00 p.m – 2:00 p.m. Hora Este de los Estados Unidos (EST – Washington DC, UTC−05:00)
Military officers are occupying civilian government agencies, keeping order, handing out food, enforcing curfews, and just generally becoming a daily part of people’s lives to an extent unseen since the military dictatorships of a decade ago.
This is mainly happening at the behest of civilian presidents, but there is real cause for alarm here, and our presenters made the case very clearly. They did so in Spanish, without translation, as seen in the video at the bottom of this post.
The video at the top of this post, though, is new. My excellent intern Elissa Prieto took highlights from that event and added English subtitles, giving you a fast-moving, 14-minute pulse-taking of this increasingly worrisome trend.
Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.
In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
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.
So, imagine that Donald Trump were to win re-election in November, and also win supermajorities in the House and Senate. What would U.S. border and migration policy look like?
It would look pretty much like it does today. The White House has seized on the COVID-19 emergency to ram through most of its border-security and immigration agenda by fiat. And it’s doing it in ways that threaten to spread the virus: at home, in Mexican border towns, and in Central America.