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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Weekly border update: January 15, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Trump visits border wall in Texas

The Rio Grande Valley border town of Alamo, Texas, whose municipal officials received no official notice from the White House, hosted an abruptly planned January 12 visit from Donald Trump. It was the outgoing president’s first public appearance since the January 6 riot in the Capitol building. There, before an audience made up mainly of Border Patrol agents and DHS officials, Trump commemorated the construction of 450 miles of border wall during his administration.

“450 miles. Nobody realizes how big this is.… We gave you 100% of what you wanted so now you have no excuses,” he told the laughing crowd of assembled agents. Trump autographed a plaque affixed to the wall, then returned to Washington where, that same evening, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence to use the 25th Amendment to remove him. The next day, the House impeached him for a second time.

The previous week, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan had told reporters that wall-building contractors were completing between 1.5 and 2 miles of new barrier each day, on pace to complete 475 miles by Trump’s likely final day in office, January 20. A CBP/Army Corps of Engineers update reported that 453 miles had been completed as of January 8. From this and past updates we can conclude that, of those 453:

  • 47 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
  • 158 replaced existing, shorter pedestrian fencing;
  • 193 replaced existing vehicle barrier; and
  • 55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.

In all, then, the Trump administration built 240 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. Of the 453 miles, roughly 5% are in Texas, the state that makes up about 64% of the border. The topography of the Rio Grande and the predominance of private landholdings along the border complicate express wall-building in Texas, though the Trump administration has begun dozens of eminent-domain processes to seize border-zone land from Texas property owners.

To date, the administration has directed about $16.3 billion for wall construction; the Washington Post reported in December that at least $3.3 billion will be unused as of January 20. Despite Trump’s repeated pledges, Mexico has not paid for any construction.

CBP’s Morgan said that the administration plans to contract out another 300 miles “probably by January 17, 18, 19.” Those hasty arrangements will almost certainly be canceled once Joe Biden takes office; the President-Elect has said “there will not be another foot” of wall built during his administration. It remains to be seen whether Biden will act immediately to exercise “convenience clauses” to cancel existing contracts with private builders, which would involve paying termination fees-and, if so, whether his administration would go still further, downgrading or disassembling segments of Trump’s wall in environmentally sensitive areas and Native American sacred sites.

Security forces mobilize against possible “caravan” in Central America

Since December, social media messages in Central America, especially Honduras, have been calling for a new “caravan” of migrants. Many indicate an intention to depart from the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, on January 15.

In recent years, migrants have attempted “caravans”-hundreds or even thousands traveling en masse-as a way to migrate without paying thousands of dollars to a smuggler, while using safety in numbers to avoid the extreme dangers of the migrant trail through Mexico.

Under pressure from the Trump administration, security forces in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras dispersed attempted caravans, long before they came anywhere near the United States, in April and October 2019, and in January, October, and December 2020. It has been more than two years since a significant number of migrants traveling by “caravan” has reached the U.S. border. Migrants who pay steep fees to smugglers-whose business depends on official corruption along the migrant trail-continue to reach the U.S. border.

Whether in caravans or not, officials, advocates, and experts expect a steady increase in migration from Central America this year. COVID-19 and two November hurricanes have left millions in desperate conditions. In Honduras alone (population 9.7 million), 600,000 people have lost their employment since the pandemic began. This is on top of the large number of migrants who, as in past years, have fled Central America due to threats against their lives from criminal organizations and a lack of government protection.

About 250 migrants departed the San Pedro Sula bus station ahead of the scheduled date, on January 13. According to press reports, as of January 14 they were stranded on the city’s outskirts as police in riot gear assembled on the highway. An officer told AP “the intention was to stop the migrants from violating a pandemic-related curfew, check their documents and make sure they weren’t traveling with children that were not their own.”

Caravan participants will face similar blockages further along the route. On January 11 officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico met in the Honduran border city of Corinto, near San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean, to discuss migration coordination. While they stated that “migration is a right,” the government representatives said that all travelers will require passports, proof of parentage for any children, and proof of recent negative COVID-19 tests. On January 13 an 11-nation body, the Regional Conference on Migration, issued an “extraordinary declaration” pledging to increase cooperation amid “concern about irregular flows of migrants.”

Authorities in Honduras and Guatemala say they are deploying thousands of military personnel to interdict caravan participants. Guatemala, which even plans to use its Air Force, has declared a 15-day “state of prevention” in seven of its twenty-two departments (provinces) east of the central highlands. There, police and troops may restrict freedom of assembly and limit the population’s movements.

Links

  • Katie Tobin, an official at UNHCR’s Washington office with long experience on asylum, will begin work next week as senior director for transborder security on Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
  • Winding down the “Remain in Mexico” program and treating asylum seekers more humanely “requires the active partnership of the Mexican government,” Leon Krauze points out in the Washington Post. Meanwhile Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s choice for National Security Advisor, spoke on January 6 with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard about “a ‘new approach’ to migration issues that ‘offers alternatives to undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States,'” Reuters reported.
  • Border Patrol agents in Texas’s Del Rio Sector recovered the body of a pregnant 33-year-old Haitian woman from the Rio Grande on January 8. They later determined that Mexican authorities had recovered the body of her husband from the river a few days earlier.
  • The Trump administration has rushed through a host of 11th-hour regulations and immigration court decisions further limiting the right to seek asylum in the United States, which may take the Biden administration months to undo if it so chooses.

In response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by El Paso reporter Robert Moore, who was seeking information about a CBP crowd control exercise and metering of asylum seekers at ports of entry, the agency told a judge that “[t]he earliest it could start producing the requested records was June 30, 2021, and it would take up to six years to complete.”

Weekly e-mail update: reason for optimism

Here’s a 600-word introduction I wrote to open my most recent e-mail newsletter. That edition also includes a collection of things I posted here over the past week—Colombia and Border updates, selected links—plus a collection of tweets that made me laugh.

Here’s the page with past editions, and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

The last thing you want to read is another take on the horror that took place 1.5 miles from my house last Wednesday. I’ll make mine quick, and it may surprise you. I’m feeling optimistic.

All around the world, illiberal elected leaders—”authoritarian populists”—are dismantling democratic institutions and persuading millions to live in their alternate truth-free realities. Look around, and it’s hard to find an example of one of these leaders being defeated at the ballot box before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. (Ecuador? The Gambia? Sort of.) As checks and balances crumble and lies proliferate, nobody seems to know what to do. Neither street protests nor recall votes nor comprehensive fact-checking dislodge or even affect the popularity of the world’s Orbans, Dutertes, Modis, Maduros, Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros.

In the United States, though, we’re doing it. It’s working. Our authoritarian populist is out in nine days, maybe less. Congress reconvened amid smashed glass and after 3:00AM, despite Republican dead-enders’ cynical efforts, it confirmed the truth that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.

Getting rid of an authoritarian populist is really freaking hard. Here in America, we’re not doing it at all gracefully. It’s so ugly. Wednesday was as ugly as we’ve seen in our national politics in generations. But we’re doing it. It’s working.

Right now, the U.S. brand as “example of democracy for the world” is garbage. But if we can come back from this—if our battered institutions can peacefully break the authoritarians’ back and re-cage our historic demon, racism—then the United States will be an even stronger example than before. It will hold up a light for countries unable to break the spell of 21st century post-truth authoritarian populism.

We’re not out of the woods. The 2022 miderms and the 2024 presidential elections could go badly. There’s just a narrow window open for the majority of Americans who at least somewhat value truth and reason. By forcing everyone to stare consequences in the face, last Wednesday opened that window further. The outcome in Georgia on Tuesday—more reason for optimism!—opens it still further. But there’s a lot of work ahead in the next two to four years.

And as Wednesday made plain, a lot of that work involves our security forces. 

Our legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. Wednesday’s insurrection shows how important that norm is. There must be accountability for violating it.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Some Capitol Police were amazingly brave, and at least one paid the ultimate price. But others appeared to be sympathetic with the rioters. Their small numbers and lack of backup sent a strong message too. The force’s management—and especially the Trump appointees at DHS and DOD who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent. This is utterly inviable. It must never happen again.

Nearly everywhere in the world, security forces tend to be made up of conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader is a common challenge. If the United States is going to be a “democratic example” again, we need to show we’re up to that challenge. That means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies right away, starting with the highest levels of their chain of command.

Colombia peace update: January 9, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.

U.S. Congress passes 2021 foreign aid bill

On December 27 Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s budget for 2021, including the foreign aid appropriation (see “Division K” here). As in nearly all of the past 30 years, that bill makes Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The law appropriates $461,375,000 in State Department and USAID-managed aid for Colombia this year, about $30-40 million more than the past few years’ laws and about $50 million more than the Trump White House had requested in February.

The proportions between programs and priorities are similar to prior years. Our best estimate (derived here) is that 47% of the $461 million will go to economic and civilian institution-building aid programs; 18% will go to strictly military and police aid programs; and 34% will go to programs, mainly counter-drug programs, that can pay for either type of aid but for which we don’t have a breakdown.

In addition to the $461 million in the foreign aid bill, a significant but unknown amount of military and police aid will come from the Defense Department’s $700 billion-plus budget. In 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service, Defense accounts contributed another $55.39 million or more to benefit Colombia’s security forces.

As in previous years, the law includes human rights conditions holding up about $7.7 million in military aid until the State Department can certify to Congress that Colombia is holding gross human rights violators accountable, preventing attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society leaders, protecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, and holding accountable senior military officers responsible for “false positive” killings.

After some very concerning military intelligence scandals in 2020, the law includes a new condition on the $7.7 million: the State Department must also certify that Colombia is holding accountable those responsible for “illegal surveillance of political opponents, government officials, journalists, and human rights defenders, including through the use of assets provided by the United States.”

Killings of former FARC combatants accelerate

The UN Verification Mission’s latest quarterly report, dated December 29, voices strong concerns about “248 killings of former combatants (six women), including 21 during the reporting period (two women, three of indigenous origin and two Afro-Colombians) and a total of 73 during 2020.”

The problem is worsening. Five demobilized FARC combatants were murdered over a 12-day post-Christmas period.

  • Rosa Amalia Mendoza Trujillo and her infant daughter were among several victims of a December 27 massacre in Montecristo, Bolívar.
  • Manuel Alonso, killed on December 27 on the road between Florida, Valle del Cauca, and Miranda, Cauca.
  • Yolanda Zabala Mazo, killed on January 1, together with her sister, on January 1 in Briceño, Antioquia.
  • Duván Armed Galíndez, shot on January 2 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
  • Diego Yule Rivera, who had been displaced from Caloto, Cauca after receiving threats, was shot in Cali on January 7.

This, according to the FARC political party, brings the number of assassinated ex-combatants to 252 since the peace accord went into effect.

The chief prosecutor’s office’s (Fiscalía’s) Special Investigative Unit has managed 289 cases of killings and other attacks on ex-combatants, the UN report informs. Of these, the Unit has achieved convictions of responsible parties in 34 cases, while 20 cases are on trial, 38 are under investigation, and an additional 49 have arrest warrants issued.

The report notes that conditions are most perilous for ex-combatants in the zone surrounding the triple border between Meta, Caquetá, and Guaviare departments in south-central Colombia. This area, once the rearguard of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, is now under the strong influence of the largest FARC dissident organization, the 1st and 7th Front structure under alias “Gentil Duarte.”

Coca eradication hits record level as a restart of fumigation nears

In an end-of-year security declaration, President Duque announced that Colombia, with U.S. backing, had met its 2020 goal of eradicating 130,000 hectares of coca. This is a manual eradication record, the first time Colombia has exceeded 100,000 hectares and an area “roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles” according to AFP. The 130,000-hectare goal will remain in place, Duque added, for 2021.

(Any discussion of eradication statistics must mention mid-2020 allegations from former officials and contractors, who contend that eradication teams may have inflated their results by as much as 30 percent.)

Duque added that Colombian forces had seized 498 tons of cocaine in 2020, which would shatter the 2017 record of 434.7 tons.

We probably won’t find out how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2020 until the U.S. government and UN Office on Drugs and Crime release their estimates in mid-2021. In the meantime, the Colombian government continues to move closer to relaunching a program, suspended in 2015 for health concerns, that would eradicate coca by spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft.

On December 19 and 20 Colombia’s environmental authority (ANLA) held a virtual public hearing on one of the main requirements that must be fulfilled to relaunch fumigation: the National Police’s application to modify its environmental management plan to allow aerial glyphosate spraying. This hearing was delayed for months, as communities in remote areas with poor internet service objected to holding a “virtual” consultation due to pandemic restrictions.

At the hearing, National Police Gen. Julio Cesar González presented a summary of the force’s proposed modifications to the environmental management plan (available here as a large trove of Google documents). “We’re going to go to areas that are already deteriorated, so we don’t expect to affect them further. This is based on technology, and aerial spraying will focus on large plots.” The General insisted that the spray program’s technology has advanced over what it was before, allowing greater accuracy over the area to be sprayed and the amount of herbicide to be applied. More than 60% of the spray mixture will be conditioned water, glyphosate will be 33% (less than some commercially available mixtures), and the rest will be a mineral coadjuvant.

Diego Trujillo, the delegate for agricultural and environmental issues at Colombia’s inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría), voiced concerns about the proposed renewal of spraying. He argued that it runs counter to the peace accord’s commitments, and relies on purchases of Chinese-produced glyphosate that, according to El Espectador’s summary, “led in 2015 to an investigation into corruption in the this herbicide’s acquisition, which was was not recommended by health and environmental authorities.”

Mauricio Albarracín of the legal NGO DeJusticia objected to the process, citing a lack of prior and informed participation of possibly affected communities who were being asked to consider an environmental management plan “that consists of more than 3,000 pages, contains language that is not accessible to the possibly affected population, and suffers a lack of transparency in information.” Albarracín added that information about harms and risks is “insufficient, poorly structured and biased,” and that the spraying plan fails to meet the obligation to implement the 2016 peace accord in good faith. (The accord sets aside aerial spraying as a last resort, when coca growers who have been offered help with alternatives persist in growing the crop, and when conditions on the ground are too dangerous for manual eradication.)

María Alejandra Vélez, director of the University of the Andes’ CESED (Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), argued that fumigation is not cost-effective and could carry unacceptable health and environmental risks. Vélez, an economist, found fault with the police proposal’s methods and quality of information.

Following the hearing, the daily El Espectador published a tough editorial titled “insisting on the useless.”

Presidency officials are investing their time complying with the requirements imposed by the Constitutional Court to resume an ineffective and insufficient activity that destroys ties with communities in the most affected areas. One would think that after decades of failure, the political consensus in Colombia would show signs of reflective capacity. But this is not the case. The useless is presented as the magical solution.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s homicide rate fell 4.6% in 2020 to a rate of 23.79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest level since 1974. However, the country suffered a jump in massacres—killings of three or more people at a time—with 89, claiming 345 victims.
  • President Iván Duque said that his government has no intention of providing COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “Of course they won’t get it,” he told Blu Radio. “Imagine what we would live through. We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”
  • La Silla Vacía wades through the Fiscalía’s record on bringing social leaders’ killers to justice, and finds 30 percent of cases have reached the indictment stage but only 7 percent have concluded with a conviction. Meanwhile, WOLA published a second alert, just before Christmas, about threats to social leaders, a week after warning of a large number of urgent situations. And on January 1 Gerardo León, a community leader in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, became the first murdered Colombian social leader of 2021.
  • Colombia expelled two Russian diplomats, accusing them of espionage. The Putin government followed suit, expelling two diplomats from Colombia’s Moscow embassy.
  • As of December 22, Joe Biden still hadn’t given a call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his post-election congratulations. If a call has taken place since, the Colombian government hasn’t announced it. Governing-party officials’ meddling in the U.S. campaign is the most likely explanation for the presidential ghosting.
  • Colombia has a new National Police chief. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, an officer with an intelligence background and the son-in-law of 1990s chief Gen. Rosso José Serrano, replaces Gen. Óscar Atehortúa, whose tenure was marked by protests against brutality and allegations of corruption. An El Espectador editorial urges the new chief to carry out badly needed reforms to the force.
  • Hernán Giraldo, a former top paramilitary leader from northern Colombia whose name is synonymous with systematic rape of young girls, is being extradited back to Colombia nearly 13 years after being sent to the United States to serve a sentence for another crime, drug trafficking.
  • Retired military officers are becoming more politically active. La Silla Vacía reports on a late October meeting at which former soldiers and police agreed to form a political party to run candidates in 2022 national elections, in order to counter what they see as “a radical left.” Meanwhile retired Gen. Jaime Ruiz, president of Colombia’s hardline association of former officers (ACORE), shared with El Nuevo Siglo his view that, largely because of the FARC peace accord, “2020 was not a good year for the security forces.”
  • December 31 was the deadline the government set for the FARC to hand over all illegally obtained assets, as mandated by the peace accord. The ex-guerrillas appear to have fallen short on turning over land and property, but claim that they face security and legal obstacles to doing so. El Espectador explains the “ABC” of the controversy.

Weekly border update: January 8, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border. This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

2021 budget

On December 27 President Trump signed into law an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal budget in 2021. It includes the Homeland Security Department’s appropriation, which was one of the most contentious areas of difference between the Democratic-majority House and the Republican-majority Senate.

The Senate had included $2 billion for further construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The House’s version of the bill not only offered zero dollars for the wall, it sought to rescind wall-construction money from past bills. When leaders of both houses met to reconcile differences, the Senate got more of what it wanted so that President Trump might sign the bill: $1.375 billion for “the construction of barrier system along the southwest border.”

“We pushed back hard against this funding, and it was one of the last things resolved in our bill,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), the chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, told Border Report. “The White House made clear to leadership, however, that if the omnibus did not include this funding level and reference the ‘construction of border barrier system’ purpose from the FY20 bill, there would be no omnibus. That could have led to a government shutdown right before Christmas and could also have put in jeopardy the coronavirus pandemic funding.”

The question now is whether President-Elect Joe Biden is bound to spend the money on border wall construction, against his stated will. House Democrats say “no”: that the bill language provides wiggle room. “There is no definition of ‘barrier systems’ and, therefore, the Biden administration can use that for so many options,” another top House Democratic appropriator, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, told Border Report. “It could be used for technology, for roads, for lighting along the border, it can replace older existing fencing so therefore we don’t have to go with the new fence. It gives the administration a lot of leeway.” It’s not fully clear, but it may even be possible that “barrier systems” might include downgrading of wall designs in environmentally sensitive areas or Native American sacred sites.

This may all be moot, anyway, now that the Democrats are to assume Senate majority control following Tuesday’s election in Georgia. The new Congress is likely to approve any request from President Biden to rescind the border wall money.

Other border-relevant elements of the 2021 bill include:

  • A 1.4% increase in CBP’s operations budget (to $12,908,923,000, from $12,735,399,000 in 2020);
  • A 2% decrease in ICE’s budget (to $7,875,730,000, from $8,032,801,000 in 2020—the House bill had sought, but did not obtain, a sharp reduction in ICE’s detention capacity);
  • A 7% decrease in the budget of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division ($4,118,902,000, from $4,429,033,000 in 2020);
  • “No funding for new Border Patrol Agents or personnel hired above the baseline funded in fiscal year 2020;”
  • A $110 million, or one-third, increase in the budget for alternatives to detention programs; and
  • CBP and ICE reporting requirements to Congress, and in some cases to the public, about border security metrics, its border wall-building expenditure plan, family separation events, numbers of asylum seekers, migrant deaths, alternatives to detention, inspections and due process in detention facilities, unusually long stays in holding facilities, infrastructure needs at ports of entry, assistance provided to other law-enforcement agencies, and a “risk-based” border security improvement plan.

Biden administration won’t dismantle Trump policies on day one

Past updates have laid out some of the hardline Trump administration border and migration restrictions that the Biden administration has indicated it will undo. Transition officials, however, are trying to set expectations. Voicing concerns about a rush to the border and a lack of processing infrastructure, the President-Elect and top advisors warned in pre-Christmas press interactions that the phase-out may be more gradual than migrants rights’ advocates would prefer.

“It will get done and it will get done quickly but it’s not going to be able to be done on Day 1,” Biden said, adding that his administration would need “probably the next six months” to get processing and adjudication infrastructure in place to receive significant numbers of asylum seekers once again. Undoing Trump’s policies without that capacity in place, Biden added, would be “the last thing we need” because the result could be “two million people on our border.”

“Processing power at the border is not like a light that can be turned on and off,” Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s national security advisor, told Spain’s EFE news service in an interview given jointly with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice to fill her old position. “Migrants and asylum seekers should not at all believe the people in the region who are selling the idea that the border will suddenly be wide open to process everyone on the first day. It will not be so.”

As as result, the pandemic restrictions currently expelling people with fear of return will persist during the Biden administration’s early weeks. So will Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings in Mexico. Sullivan said, though, that Biden “will work to promptly undo” the “safe third country” agreements signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which would permit the United States to send other countries’ asylum seekers to apply for protection in those countries.

Policymakers are concerned about a “rush” of migrants to the border amid easing COVID travel restrictions and perceptions that a less hardline president is assuming power. Media in Central America are reporting about plans afoot in Honduras to organize a new migrant caravan, to depart on January 15.

CBP releases December border numbers

So far, U.S. government data are showing growing migration at the border, but not a surge. CBP’s numbers for December, released on January 7, showed a 3 percent increase in Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants from November to December.

The overall number—70,630 people apprehended—was very high by the standards of recent years. Of those, however, 60,010 were quickly expelled under pandemic border restrictions. And there was much double-counting, as the rapid expulsions have brought a sharp increase in repeat attempts to migrate.

Monthly migrant apprehensions have been roughly at the same level—the mid-to-high 60,000s—since September. The apprehended population, however, has become slightly less Mexican and more Central American. Apprehensions of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased 24 percent from November to December, while apprehensions of Mexican migrants—still the majority—fell by 6 percent. This was the second straight monthly decline in apprehensions of Mexicans, while apprehensions of Central Americans have been increasing steadily since June.

Only 13 percent of apprehended migrants were children or parents with children. That is a sharp reversal from 2019, when children and families were two-thirds of the apprehended population. The main reason is the current impossibility of pursuing asylum at the border, compounded by the controversial “Title 42” pandemic policy of expelling most migrants as quickly as possible, regardless of their fear of return. Border Patrol and CBP expelled migrants 393,807 times between March—when pandemic border measures went into place—and December.

The data points to increases in border-zone seizures of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine, starting a few months after the imposition of pandemic border restrictions. Though cartels have nimbly adjusted to the new measures, as Steve Fisher and Kirk Semple reported in a late December New York Times analysis, U.S. border authorities are intercepting a modestly larger share of their product. (No similar trend is evident for marijuana; smuggling from Mexico has plummeted in recent years as many U.S. states have legalized and regulated cannabis.)

Download a packet of WOLA border and migration infographics at http://bit.ly/wola_border.

The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is now law

On January 1 President Trump signed into law the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019 (S. 2174), a bill that helps border jurisdictions deal with the tragedy of hundreds of migrants who die of dehydration and exposure in borderland deserts and wilderness areas each year.

S. 2174 originated in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kamala Harris (D-California, the Vice President-Elect). It was not a controversial piece of legislation: it passed the Senate under unanimous consent in mid-Novembe, and an identical House version (H.R. 8772), co-sponsored by Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), passed quickly in mid-December under suspension of the rules.

The new law authorizes funding for proper care and identification of remains, which will assist their return to citizens of other countries who have often gone years without knowing what happened to their loved ones who migrated. It authorizes funding for 170 solar-powered rescue beacons in the desert so that migrants in distress can call for help.

The bill also includes detailed reporting requirements, since data about the migrant deaths problem have been very spotty. For instance, while Border Patrol listed only 43 migrant remains found in Arizona between January and September 2020, a joint project of the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s Office and the NGO Humane Borders reported finding 181 during that period.

In fact, the Pima-Humane Borders effort recorded its highest-ever total of migrant remains in 2020: 227 deaths after the hottest summer in Arizona’s history. This was way up from 144 in 2019 and 128 in 2018. While the heat is a big reason for the increase, so is the pandemic border closure and “expulsions” policy, which eliminated incentives for people who might otherwise seek asylum to turn themselves in to border agents. “They can’t apply for asylum, so their options are considerably cut down and they’re forced into more and more dangerous situations,” Montana Thames, of the Arizona humanitarian group No More Deaths, told Mother Jones. Thames added that “wall construction is happening closer to Nogales and Sasabe, where there are more resources—so because of the wall constitution, they have to go to more dangerous and more remote parts of the desert.”

In most recent years, Arizona’s migrant deaths total had been second to south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. There, in Brooks County about 80 miles north of the border, migrants trying to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint have died in large numbers. In 2020, though, according to the Brooks County sheriff’s office, migrant deaths fell to 34 in 2020, down from 45 in 2019. The problem is worst right now in Arizona as tougher border measures push migrants to some of the most remote deserts.

Links

  • CBP released a “Strategy 2021-2026” document that, at 1,250 words over 32 photo-heavy pages, is more of a brochure than a strategy discussion. It does reveal, though, that the agency has increased Border Patrol agent hiring by 10 percent and CBP officer hiring by 22%, reversing years of decline caused by difficulties in recruitment and bringing the agencies closer to their authorized staffing levels. Notably, except for one photo caption, the document does not discuss the border wall.
  • The DHS Office of Immigration Statistics released its 2020 “Enforcement Lifecycle Report,” which provides data about what happened to migrants after they were apprehended or presented at ports of entry.
  • President Trump pardoned two CBP officers who were convicted in 2006 of beating an apprehended migrant with a shotgun, shooting him, and then attempting to cover up the crime.
  • A joint investigation by Human Rights Watch, Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program, and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic documents trauma that children and families suffered as a direct result of the Remain in Mexico program.
  • At the Washington Post, Hannah Dreier tells the outrageous and sad story of Kevin Euceda, a Honduran asylum seeker who spent three years in ICE detention, asked to be deported as COVID swept through his detention center, and died—or was killed—shortly after his return.
  • The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kate Morrissey provides a helpful primer on the U.S. asylum system, its origins, and possible reforms like reducing the court backlog, providing legal aid, sharply reducing detention, and working with other countries.
  • The number of National Guard and other U.S. military personnel deployed to the border has fallen to 3,600—from well over 5,000 in 2018—reports Military Times.
  • The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux examines the Border Patrol’s hardline, politically active union, which attached itself very closely to Donald Trump and his unsuccessful reelection campaign, and the larger issue of a politicized border security apparatus that is likely to clash with the Biden administration.
  • We salute the memory of two respected Mexican migrant shelter operators who died of COVID-19-related complications since mid-December. Juan Francisco Louriero of the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales and Father Pedro Pantoja of the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo were both 76 years old.

The big story from yesterday

I’ve worked on defense and security in Latin America for a long time, which colored my view of what happened in the Capitol yesterday.

As soon as we all saw rioters start calmly parading through the Capitol, I was immediately struck by our security forces’ slow and tolerant response. Starting with some of the Capitol Police (though others performed bravely), and continuing with the incredible lack of backup they received.

20 years after 9/11, of course the Capitol Police and other authorities have the resources, and off-the-shelf plans, for dealing with a situation just like this in a professional, efficient, rights-respecting way. I’m sure they’ve had drills and exercises. Why were those plans plainly ignored? Why did it all fall apart for a group of only a couple thousand people maximum?

Anybody who has paid attention to Latin America knows what a dangerous politicization of security forces looks like. We also saw it—in the other direction—with federal law enforcement in Portland and at Washington’s BLM protests.

Some cops at the Capitol yesterday seem to have felt some kinship with the pro-Trump mob, and treated them way differently than they do peaceful Trump critics and people of color. And their management was plainly politicized in its failure to prepare for a contingency we all saw coming, and its subsequent failure to rush help to the scene.

You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away, unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.

Let’s stare that directly in the face, then do our best after January 20 to get it investigated, punished, and reformed so it never happens again. Let’s find out if that’s even possible to do in America in 2021.

This non-response looked familiar to anyone who has studied Latin America’s militaries and police during times of transition to and from democracy. To me, it was the big story of yesterday, and it’s terrifying.

Colombia peace update: Week of December 13, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Consultation puts a restart of fumigation on the front burner

On December 19 Colombia’s environmental authority, the ANLA, is holding a long-awaited public hearing about resuming coca fumigation. The term refers to a U.S.-backed program that uses aircraft spraying the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca. The hearing is a step toward ANLA’s deciding whether to award the controversial program an environmental license, one of several prerequisites that Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set for its restart.

Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years and over 1.8 million hectares sprayed, following a World Health Organization literature review’s finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Since then, the government was slow to implement an alternative—whether on-the-ground eradication or building state presence and services in coca-growing zones—and coca cultivation surged.

The December 19 public hearing centers on the 4,000-page modification that the National Police—which runs the spray program—is proposing to the ANLA’s environmental management plan for the spraying. The hearing responds to a March request from four NGOs, Acción Técnica Social, Elementa, Viso Mutop, y Dejusticia. The pandemic has delayed it: courts ruled that communities in remote areas far from internet access could not be consulted “virtually.” A higher court overruled that in October, however, finding that virtual consultations could go ahead.

The groups that called for the hearing contend that the spray program is risky and ineffective. DeJusticia’s co-founder, Rodrigo Uprimny, notes, “The argument against fumigation is simple: it is not effective, it has serious negative effects, its legal viability is precarious, and there are better strategies.” María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs (CESED) contends that fumigation causes “a loss of state legitimacy,” a “balloon effect” as coca cultivation moves elsewhere, and conflict with the peace accords’ offer of help with crop substitution.

Should this process lead to a restart of spraying, we can expect Colombian organizations—including those that called for the December 19 hearing—to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. An analysis from DeJusticia advocates finds “poor transparency and access to information in the process, weak evidence, and failure to comply with constitutional orders,” while little is known about the health study that Colombia’s equivalent of the CDC (the INS) has been required to carry out. A joint letter from numerous Colombian organizations found that “the government is not complying with the legal and constitutional mandate to respect consultation and free, prior, and informed consent in eradication plans in ethnic territories,” and demanded that the December 19 hearing be suspended.

Coca fumigation has been the subject of numerous WOLA reports and commentaries, a November 30 joint letter with Colombian partners, and an event we co-hosted on December 9.

International warnings about massacres and social leader killings

“I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence,” reads a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that counts 375 people murdered in 2020 by massacres and targeted social leader killings. A summary of the statement was featured for at least two days this week on the main page of the United Nations’ website. During the past week, strong concerns about massacres (defined as the killing of multiple people at a time) and social leader murders also came from:

  • The 29th semi-annual report of OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA), drawing attention to “illegal armed groups’ territorial and social control.”
  • A Verdad Abierta resource that allows a reader to view brief biographical and geographical information about 602 social leaders killed between January 2016 and September 2020, selecting for year, region, and stage of judicial investigation.
  • WOLA’s monthly alert about the human rights situation, which “cannot stress enough that international actions are required to stop the human rights rollbacks occurring as a result of the inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace accord.”

Two reports warn about security along the Colombia-Venezuela border

Two high-credibility security think tanks released reports raising alarms about worsening security conditions at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Even as pandemic measures stop all legal border crossings, violent organized crime activity has increased, in a way that mixes dangerously with the neighboring governments’ poor diplomatic relations.

“In the 24 border municipalities of Colombia, during 2020, 472 people have been assassinated, 63 of Venezuelan nationality; 24 have been massacred; 1,365 persons have been forcibly displaced and 13 have been kidnapped,” reports the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación in a 55-page report on The Situation of Security and Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela Border. “On the Venezuelan side,” however, the Foundation could obtain “no known figures that would allow us to specify” how bad the situation is.

“Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings,” reports the International Crisis Group’s Disorder on the Border: Keeping the Peace between Colombia and Venezuela. “High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.”

Both reports find the Rastrojos, a paramilitary-derived organized crime group, losing ground to the ELN along the border between Norte de Santander, Colombia and Táchira, Colombia: a more densely populated part of the border especially coveted by smugglers. The Rastrojos were found to have helped Venezuelan Assembly President (recognized by several dozen countries as Interim President) Juan Guaidó to cross overland into Colombia in February 2019. Since then, Venezuela’s security forces have cracked down on the group, along with the ELN, which moved quickly to fill the vacuum and to consolidate its dominance on the Venezuelan side on the border.

The Venezuelan government appears to have aided and abetted the ELN, the Crisis Group notes, as Caracas officials “view the ELN as a supplement to the state’s border defenses and seem willing to overlook occasional clashes between its fighters and the Venezuelan military.”

Other groups, like FARC dissidents, remnants of the EPL guerrillas, Venezuelan gang networks, and Mexican cartel middlemen, are also very active, adding to the chaos. “The Colombian army, for its part, is under orders not to rock the boat” in order to minimize the likelihood of conflict, the ICG finds.

Links

  • The Fiscalía is investigating 2,314 cases of “false positive” cases involving 10,949 members of the Army, including 22 generals, involving 3,966 victims, according to a September document that the prosecutor’s office sent to the International Criminal Court.
  • Despite the sharp rise in massacres and social leader killings, Colombia’s 2020 homicide rate to date is 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents, which Colombia’s Police say is the lowest in 46 years.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses take issue with government claims that nearly all 250 killings of ex-FARC guerrillas are related to narcotrafficking.
  • “Of the 75 municipalities with the most coca or substitution leader killings…there were specialized judges in only 3 (Puerto Asís, Tumaco, and Cúcuta) and criminal judges in 6. There were judicial police in 11 and specialized prosecutors in 7,” reads a La Silla Vacía analysis of the justice system’s absence.
  • Prominent center-left columnists Ramiro Bejarano, María Jimena Duzán, and Cecilia Orozco continued to question former Fiscal General Néstor Humberto Martínez, whom they accuse of plotting with the U.S. DEA to entrap participants and supporters of the peace process between 2017 and 2019.

Weekly border update: December 18, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

2021 spending package probably includes some border wall money

The House and Senate have almost completely agreed on a federal budget for 2021. Its final approval might not come until next week, as negotiations continue over an accompanying COVID-19 relief package.

Border wall and ICE detention money were reportedly two of the sticking points on the 2021 omnibus budget bill. The Republican-majority Senate’s Homeland Security appropriation had sought to devote $1.96 billion to border wall-building next year, while the Democratic-majority House sought to zero out the wall and rescind some past-year money. The House also would have paid for roughly half as many ICE detention beds as the Senate.

The chambers appear to have reached a compromise. “The final disposition of immigrant detention bed capacity and border wall funding wasn’t immediately clear,” Roll Call reported on December 14. “But there was an expectation that the average daily population at ICE facilities would be cut under the tentative agreement in exchange for some wall construction funding.”

Nobody has seen any numbers, and it isn’t clear how the bill’s language might compel President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he would stop wall construction, to spend any new wall-building money.

The Washington Post learned from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that about $3.3 billion in its Defense budget wall construction accounts will be unspent as of January 20. As it might cost $700 million in fees to extricate the Corps from its contracts with construction companies, a halt would bring a net savings of about $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile in Arizona, NPR reported, “contractors have added shifts—they’re working all night long under light towers to meet Trump’s goal of 450 miles of new barriers before his term is over.”

El Salvador “safe third country” agreement is finalized

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary for Homeland Security (depending on whom you ask), visited El Salvador this week. There, he met with President Nayib Bukele and announced implementation accords for a so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA, or “safe third country” agreement) that the United States and El Salvador signed in September 2019.

Under this agreement, El Salvador—a country so unsafe that it often tops the list of U.S. asylum seekers’ nationalities—will accept U.S. transfers of other countries’ asylum seekers, who would then need to seek protection in El Salvador.

DHS signed similar agreements with Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Only the Guatemala agreement entered into force, and the Trump administration sent 939 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to Guatemala City between October 2019 and March 2020, when pandemic measures suspended the arrangement. Only 20 percent of them decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala; at least some of the rest were assuredly returned to danger. Human Rights Watch and Refugees International performed follow-up fieldwork in Guatemala, and found that of 30 returnees interviewed:

Several said they had no family or support networks in Guatemala and that they feared for their safety in Guatemala. Many indicated they would return to El Salvador and Honduras despite continuing to express a fear of persecution there.

Don’t expect the Biden administration to implement the El Salvador or other Northern Triangle safe third country agreements. A Biden campaign document was unequivocal: “Biden will end these [detrimental asylum] policies, starting with Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols and Safe Third Country Agreements.”

CBP’s November numbers show the expected migrant “wave” flattening out, for now

On December 14 Customs and Border Protection released monthly border statistics, covering November. After six consecutive months of increases in Border Patrol’s apprehensions of undocumented migrants, the new data showed a leveling off last month.

Download a PDF of dozens of border infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • Apprehensions declined by 0.8 percent, from 67,639 to 67,101, from October to November.
  • This, however, was the largest apprehensions number for a November since November 2005.
  • Note that this number measures “apprehensions” or “encounters,” not “people.” The quick turnaround of CBP’s pandemic-era expulsions is spurring recidivism as migrants turn around and try to cross again. The 67,101 includes much double and triple-counting.
  • Between March and November—with some double-counting—CBP expelled 328,037 apprehended migrants under the “Title 42” CDC pandemic policy, which ejects adult and family asylum seekers without a hearing. That policy faces legal challenges; on whether to lift or alter it, “the incoming administration has been silent,” a New York Times analysis notes.
  • Demographic trends are mixed. Compared to October,        
    • single adults from Mexico declined 2 percent;
    • single adults from the Northern Triangle increased 21 percent;
    • unaccompanied children from Guatemala and El Salvador increased, but children from Honduras and Mexico declined;
    • family unit members from Guatemala and Mexico increased, but those from El Salvador and Honduras declined.
Download a PDF of dozens of border infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

As noted in previous updates, officials and press coverage are predicting a migrant “surge” from Central America in early 2021. While that remains likely, November’s apprehension data revealed an unexpected break in momentum. One hypothesis: mobility was curtailed during the first half of November, when Central America was slammed by two major hurricanes.

Links

  • In a Wednesday voice vote, the House of Representatives passed the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act (S. 2174), which addresses the longstanding crisis of hundreds of migrants each year dying in U.S. borderlands of dehydration and exposure. It authorizes spending for rescue beacons, identification of remains, and other priorities, as discussed in last week’s update. Because of some technical changes to the bill’s language, it needs the Senate—which passed the bill in November—to quickly approve it a second time before it goes to the President for signature.
  • A new Human Rights First report counts at least 1,314 attacks, including kidnappings, rapes, and assault, on asylum seekers subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy in Mexican border cities.
  • Though a Supreme Court decision just preserved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a big challenge goes before a Texas federal court on Tuesday. A suit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, now known nationally for leading a multi-state challenge to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, is going before Houston District Judge Andrew Hanen, who during the Obama administration ruled against two other deferred-action programs and now may find DACA to be illegal.
  • “Although Biden promised to reverse Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, he didn’t include immigration among his top four priorities: the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. That was intentional,” an unnamed source close to the transition told NPR’s Franco Ordóñez, adding “that the Biden campaign and then the transition team felt that immigration activists had become too adversarial.”

Rethinking drug policy

Here’s a 250-word comment in yesterday’s edition of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor newsletter.

Q: U.S. Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on Dec. 1 released the final report of the congressionally mandated Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, which includes recommendations to improve U.S. drug policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Does the United States need a renewed blueprint for counternarcotics policies, as the report suggests? What are the most significant changes in drug policy that the commission recommends, and are they the right ones? In what ways would the proposed policies affect anti-drug cooperation between the United States and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean?

A: Adam Isacson, senior associate for the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America: “For four decades, U.S. administrations have sought to address illicit drugs as a problem somehow separate from Latin America’s other challenges, as though a country wracked with impunity, poverty and weak governance could somehow eliminate drug trafficking. Washington encouraged the region to pursue coercive strategies with short-term success measures and punished countries that failed to ‘cooperate fully.’ It hasn’t worked. Today, the United States is at a moment of record overdoses from illicit drugs produced in the region, while seizures and price data indicate burgeoning supplies. Organized crime, which gets much of its revenue from the drug trade, is thriving and spurring alarming levels of violence in many countries. Overall, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission’s most important contribution is its encouragement of a long- term time frame and a more equal, consultative approach. It would replace the unilateral ‘certification’ process with agreed-upon ‘compacts.’ It would place badly needed emphasis on illicit financial flows, which too often benefit corrupt officials and economic interests. In Colombia, it would de-emphasize forced eradication in favor of implementing the peace accords’ rural governance provisions. In Mexico and Central America, it prefers criminal justice reform and citizen security to endless ‘kingpin’ operations. The commission’s less threat-based, more equal approach might take longer to yield results and will require unaccustomed patience. These results, however, would hold much more promise of being permanent. A more consultative posture, meanwhile, would do far more to improve cooperation regionwide than the asymmetric relationship we’ve seen for so long.”

Colombia peace update: Week of December 6, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fumigation is coming

Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, told the Blu Radio network that a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation might restart in as little as “between a month and a half and two months.”

Five years ago, citing health concerns, the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos suspended this program, which used aircraft to spray the controversial herbicide glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015. The current government of Iván Duque is working to restart the program, with U.S. funding and exhortations from Donald Trump: “you’re going to have to spray.”

That requires meeting a series of requirements laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, among them consultations with communities and studies of environmental and health impact. The consultations had been slowed by the pandemic: a court in Nariño found that “virtual” exchanges were impossible with communities in remote areas far from internet coverage. That decision, though, was reversed by an October higher-court ruling. Now, 17 consultations are ongoing, and the environmental licensing authority, ANLA, will hold a final national consultation beginning on December 19.

Though Minister Ruiz’s maximum-two-months is on the fast end of estimates we have heard for when fumigation might restart, it is not implausible.

At a December 9 event WOLA hosted with five experts from around Colombia, speakers warned about potential damage that a renewed aerial glyphosate spraying might cause: to human health, to the environment, to indigenous cultures, and to nearby crops needed for food security. Speakers warned that a fumigation program would be costly, would cause forced displacement, and, under most circumstances, would violate the peace accords’ fourth chapter. They warned that a renewed fumigation program could inspire a wave of protest in coca-growing zones, especially if carried out under current conditions of insufficient prior consultation and few opportunities to receive crop substitution assistance.

FARC dissident activity around the country

Concerning reports from around the country point to increasing activity of FARC dissident groups. These are armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who rejected the peace accord in 2016, ex-guerrillas who demobilized but later rearmed, and new recruits. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación’s (PARES) latest report on the country’s security situation estimates that about 30 such groups, totaling perhaps 2,600 members, are active in 113 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). It places them in three categories:

  • Those networked under the 1st and 7th Front structure headed by Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who refused to demobilize in 2016. PARES estimates that 65% of dissidents are in this network.
  • The “Nueva Marquetalia” network headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks but rearmed in 2019.
  • Smaller, “dispersed” groups, often headed by very young people.

After Iván Márquez and several other top ex-FARC leaders launched their “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group in August 2019, Gentil Duarte’s larger dissident network appeared to rebuff their outreach. Now, “Police say there is a war to the death in the areas [the two dissident networks] aspire to control, such as Putumayo, Nariño, Catatumbo, and Cauca,” according to a December 10 story in El Espectador, which relies heavily on National Police information.

That story warns that Nueva Marquetalia is moving into the heartland of Gentil Duarte’s group, seeking to traffic cocaine along the Guaviare River between Meta and Guaviare. A December 7 half-ton cocaine seizure in Puerto Concordia, Meta, may indicate that Iván Márquez may have sent a powerful emissary to do this: Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” who twenty years ago was one of the most feared FARC members because he pioneered ransom kidnappings along main roads out of Bogotá. Much of the cocaine produced in Meta and Guaviare goes through Arauca into Venezuela, then by air or boat to Central America and Mexico, or on to Europe.

To the west of Puerto Concordia, in La Macarena, Meta, dissidents are believed to be behind the murder of Javier Francisco Parra, the director of Cormacarena, the Colombian government’s regional environmental body. Parra was known as a defender of Caño Cristales, a tourist destination famous for its uniquely colored algae. The site’s accessibility was widely hailed as a tangible benefit of the peace accord.

Another feared member of the Nueva Marquetalia, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa”—who headed the FARC’s brutal, elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Column—was dispatched to Putumayo. There, he made an alliance with that department’s most powerful regional organized crime group, called “La Constru” or occasionally “La Mafia Sinaloa,” and with remnants of the FARC’s 48th front. All are fighting the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group, which is aligned with Gentil Duarte, for control of Putumayo’s lucrative trafficking routes through Ecuador and out to the Pacific, and down the Caquetá river into Brazil and on to Europe.

Colombian press reports from the past week also find a worsening humanitarian situation in Nariño’s Pacific coastal region. In the busy port of Tumaco, “where, curiously, there are hundreds of Mexicans these days,” Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador about the wave of violence that followed the September collapse of a two-year truce between two local dissident groups, the Frente Óliver Sinisterra and the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico.

Several hours north and inland from Tumaco, in the violent Telembí Triangle region, La Silla Vacía reports on fighting between the Óliver Sinisterra, the Gentil Duarte-tied 30th Front, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, for control of the Patía River’s trafficking routes. Violence broke out six months ago, during the pandemic, and has been worsening ever since. Further north along the coast, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA alerted about combat between dissidents and other groups causing mass displacements in Iscuandé, Nariño.

In all of these reports, a common theme is the near-total absence of Colombia’s state. Usually, the only government presence is military—and in places like coastal Nariño, there is only so much even a corruption-free armed forces could do. In La Silla Vacía, the general heading the local armed forces task force “recognizes that the Patía River is too extensive and connects with a maze of smaller rivers that are impossible for the security forces to control in their entirety.”

Links

  • Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his first overseas trip as chairman will be to Afro-descendant regions of Colombia , a country he knows well (and, some contend, controversially).
  • Colombia’s Senate approved a round of 19 military promotions, including those of Army Generals Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo and Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sánchez, who commanded units during the 2000s alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings.
  • Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian from Caucasia, in northeastern Antioquia’s convulsed Bajo Cauca region. Verdad Abierta also focused on the Bajo Cauca region, publishing a threepart series, with some striking photos, about armed group activity and social leaders’ precarious situation.
  • At a virtual hearing of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, representatives of Colombia’s Truth Commission denounced obstacles that the government has placed in the way of their work, such as security forces’ refusal to turn over requested documents. Colombian government representatives declined even to participate in the hearing.
  • A UNDP-PRIO-Universidad de los Andes poll of 12,000 residents of the 170 post-conflict “PDET” municipalities found reduced overall perceptions of armed-group control, and 80% support for programs that reintegrate former FARC combatants.

Weekly border update: December 11, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Border wall a key disagreement delaying 2021 appropriations

Today, December 11, is the deadline that Congress had set for passage of a 2021 federal government budget. While the Democratic-majority House and Republican-majority Senate continue talks on a budget that Donald Trump might sign, they’re not finished. The Senate is likely to approve a continuing resolution, which the House passed Wednesday, extending the deadline to December 18 and averting a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic.

Legislators are “torn on at least a dozen policy issues, particularly related to immigration,” congressional staff told the Washington Post. “The most divisive issues in government spending talks concern funding for President Trump’s border wall with Mexico and detention facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

The two chambers’ versions of the 2021 Homeland Security Appropriations bill could hardly differ more widely on border wall funding. The Senate bill—which the Senate Appropriations Committee revealed in November but never voted on—provides $1.96 billion “for the construction of barrier system” along the U.S.-Mexico border. The House bill—which the House Appropriations Committee passed in July but was never debated on the floor—not only has no money for wall construction, it would rescind $1.38 billion from 2020 and ban future transfers of Defense Department funds for wall-building, as President Trump has done by declaring a “state of emergency.”

“Trump almost certainly won’t sign a package that guts funding for one of his biggest priorities as his administration comes to a close,” notes Politico. Still, with President-elect Biden promising to hold wall construction immediately upon his inauguration, it’s not clear what would happen with any wall-building money in the 2021 bill.

Media continue pointing to increasing migration, “caravan”

CBP has yet to release its November migrant apprehensions numbers. But November is likely to be the seventh consecutive month of increased migration since arrivals hit a pandemic low in April. Reports in major media—some citing CBP officials—are rumbling about an accelerating increase in migration from pandemic and hurricane-hit Central America. A common framing is that it’s an “early test” for the incoming Biden administration.

Officials are reporting increased arrivals of unaccompanied children, who are less subject to immediate expulsion under questionably legal pandemic border measures. Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said that the agency is “apprehending an average of 153 young migrants a day at the border since October.” In court filings, CBP has projected “that the flow of unaccompanied children could increase by 50 percent by late March 2021,” the Texas Tribune reports.

Often, Ortiz said, the children and their smugglers are seeking to avoid apprehension—which is a new pattern—and are being kept in “stash houses” in the border zone before being moved further north. For those who are apprehended, the Office of Refugee Resettlement—to which unaccompanied children are transferred—has less shelter space due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions: 7,971 beds, down from the norm of 13,764.

More migration from pandemic and hurricane-battered Central America appears to be a certainty. About 1,000 Honduran people, most of them victims of hurricanes Eta and Iota, departed the bus station in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday night in a “caravan” reportedly organized over social media. These efforts to migrate across Mexico, using “safety in numbers” rather than paying thousands of dollars to smugglers, became a staple of Fox News coverage and Donald Trump messaging in 2018.

Since then, though, almost none have made it through Mexico. A few members of a January 2019 caravan trickled into the United States, but most remained in Mexico. Since then, Mexico has deployed security and migration forces to block attempted caravans in the country’s far south, in April and October 2019, and again in January 2020. In October 2020, a caravan of Hondurans was broken up in Guatemala. And now, Guatemala’s National Police have announced “preventive actions” against new Honduran migration, requiring travelers to have valid passports and COVID-19 tests.

It’s not clear what a migrant wave might mean for the Biden team’s promised dismantling of the Trump administration’s hardline migration measures. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Biden transition team is “trying to decide which policies to change and when, in order to fulfill Mr. Biden’s campaign promises without creating the appearance of leniency.” This may include “temporarily leaving in place Mr. Trump’s pandemic order to return most migrants to Mexico shortly after they cross the border,” despite the illegality of expelling endangered people without giving them a hearing.

In WOLA’s view, dealing with a rising flow of asylum-seeking migrants is an administrative issue that—while difficult because the Trump administration is leaving behind a lack of infrastructure—can be handled with little drama. In a December 9 commentary, WOLA points to short, medium, and long term measures that the Biden administration can implement to handle a “wave” while guaranteeing protection to those who need it.

Hope for passage of missing migrant bill

The remains of about 8,000 migrants, most of whom died painful deaths of dehydration and exposure, have been found on U.S. soil, in border regions, since 1998. Advocates who have spent years trying to prevent these deaths, and to identify the remains, are hopeful that long-awaited legislation might ease their work.

S. 2174, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-California), passed the Senate by unanimous consent on November 16. Among other measures, the bill would fund the installation of up to 170 rescue beacons in desert areas, while helping local jurisdictions and non-profits pay for efforts to handle and identify migrant remains.

An identical bill in the House, H.R. 8772, was introduced November 18 by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). It needs to pass by the end of the 2020 congressional session in order to become law, otherwise both chambers need to start over again in 2021.

Links

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal until at least October of 2021.
  • The Trump administration is leaving office by promulgating its most restrictive rule yet undoing the right to seek asylum.
  • The New York Times published a wild story, based on a whistleblower complaint and a FOIA request, alleging that border wall contractor SLS and subcontractor Ultimate Concrete had brought Mexican citizens illegally onto their work site, on the U.S. side of the border in California, to work as armed guards. CBP records meanwhile showed that between October 2019 and March 2020, more than 320 breaches of the border wall took place in California and Arizona—nearly 2 per day.
  • Thirty-five Democratic members of the House of Representatives, led by Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), sent a letter to Joe Biden asking him to “immediately” rescind Trump’s emergency declarations, waivers, and private property condemnations enabling wall-building.
  • The El Paso Times ran a 4,000-word account of the journey of a Guatemalan father and his 10-year-old daughter caught in the web of “Remain in Mexico.”

Colombia peace update: Week of November 29, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission calls for changes

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, an independent, bipartisan entity established by a 2017 law, published a report based on a year and a half of work on December 1, and discussed its findings at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on December 3. Its Colombia recommendations call for some breaks with how the United States has engaged for decades on drug supply control.

The Commission began work in mid-2019, charged with evaluating U.S. counternarcotics programs in the Americas and recommending improvements. Its chair, Shannon O’Neil, is an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; other commissioners included a former commander of U.S. Southern Command; a former ambassador to Brazil; two former Republican and one former Democratic members of Congress; and two Colombian-American former Obama administration officials, Dan Restrepo and Juan González, who frequently represented the Biden campaign in 2020 appearances before Colombian media.

The report flatly declares that “while Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure.” It calls for a more nuanced, long-term, and cooperative approach.

The Commission backs implementing the peace accord’s first chapter, on rural reform, praising its Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) which “if carried out…would be unprecedented.” It endorses building tertiary roads, land titling, and financial inclusion.

It calls for a Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control license, an exception to “terrorist list” prohibitions that would allow U.S. programs finally to support development and reintegration projects involving FARC ex-combatants.

It recommends relegating forced coca eradication to a lower priority. “Sending workers and security forces into remote areas to eliminate small plots of coca is a wasteful and ultimately fruitless effort.”

The commission calls for protecting local social leaders, with specific mention of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and women’s leaders.

President Duque criticized the Commission’s findings, insisting that Plan Colombia brought coca cultivation down from 188,000 hectares in 2000 to 60,000 in 2014. He did not address why these gains were so quickly reversed later in ungoverned territories.

Defense bill requires report on misuse of military intelligence aid

The U.S. Congress is poised to pass the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the 1,000-plus-page law governing the Department of Defense. The House-Senate committee that resolved differences in both chambers’ version of the law included, in its narrative report, a requirement that the Defense Department inform about Colombian military intelligence bodies’ misuse of assistance to spy on reporters, legislators, human rights defenders and other civilians. Explosive revelations of such spying rocked Colombia in January and May.

The House version of the bill had required an extensive report about these human rights scandals. The Republican-majority Senate’s bill did not. Though the reporting requirement was relegated to narrative report language, the Defense Department still has 120 days from the NDAA’s passage to furnish an unclassified report describing credible allegations of misused aid since 2016, steps the Department took in response, and steps the Colombian government has taken to hold those responsible accountable, and to avoid future misuse.

Colonel’s resignation highlights Army’s internal divisions

El Tiempo’s November 30 edition revealed that, on September 22, a prominent Army colonel had sent President Duque a strongly worded resignation letter.

“I have absolutely lost confidence in the institutional High Command, headed by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro, commander of the National Army, which, without a shadow of a doubt, not only prevents me from continuing under his orders but also goes against my Christian principles and values such as loyalty, fidelity and transparency,” reads the missive from Col. Pedro Javier Rojas, who since 2011 has directed the Army’s Doctrine Center.

In this position, Rojas played a central role in rethinking the Army’s doctrine for a post-conflict mission set. The “Damascus Doctrine” (a Biblical reference to truth being revealed) was central to Colombia’s Partnership and Cooperation Program with NATO. It encourages a more professional army to work jointly and to prepare for more complex threats. Its development was a top priority of Gen. Alberto Mejía, who headed the armed forces durign the latter part of Juan Manuel Santos’s administration, coinciding with the signing and early implementation of the FARC peace accord.

Col. Rojas alleges that Gen. Zapateiro, the current army commander, is doing away with the Damascus Doctrine, erasing references to it. Zapateiro’s defenders, including the hardline association of retired officers ACORE, contend that the doctrine remains the same but is being rebranded to eliminate associations with Gen. Mejía and ex-president Santos, who are unpopular with the Army’s right wing.

Col. Rojas told El Tiempo that the problem goes deeper: “There is a clear internal leadership crisis. We have 25 fewer generals than we should have, and officers from other ranks have also left.”

“What is clear,” notes El Espectador, “is that this situation shows that there are considerable differences within the high commands of the National Army.”

How land theft was legalized

“If land in Colombia were a cake cut into ten pieces, one person would control nine of the pieces,” begins a series of videos featured by the “Rutas del Conflicto” project of Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. The four-chapter presentation, “How They Took Our Land,” explains how Colombia’s remarkably unequal land concentration worsened in recent years. While paramilitary groups played a brutal role, the videos show graphically, with thorough documentation, that mass land theft from campesinos also depended on unscrupulous government officials, military officers, and prominent businessmen.

The video series, produced by lawyer Yamile Salinas of the INDEPAZ think tank, names names. It shows how this model of mass land theft was piloted with the military-paramilitary campaign of massacres and forced displacement in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region in the 1990s. It goes on to show how the model was perfected in the Montes de María region of Colombia’s Caribbean during the early 2000s, in the oilfields of eastern Meta in the late 2000s, and more recently in the massive deforestation currently taking place in the ancestral lands of the Nukak people in Guaviare.

“We wanted to show how this displacement and dispossession runs throughout the whole country,” Salinas told El Espectador. “The model is being perfected, and it is moving through several territories involving all actors: the guerrillas, the ‘paras’, public servants, and big companies.”

Links

  • An Army report submitted to the Truth Commission contends that the institution did not collaborate widely with paramilitary groups during the conflict, omitting mention of many emblematic cases.
  • The pandemic has been the largest of many obstacles faced by the Truth Commission, which must finish work in November 2021, Santiago Torrado writes at Spain’s El País.
  • Leyner Palacios, an Afro-descendant social leader and survivor of the 2002 massacre in Bojayá, Chocó, is the 2020 winner of the National Human Rights “defender of the year” Prize given by the Church of Sweden and the Swedish development organization Diakonia. The “lifetime achievement” prize went to another well-known Chocó Afro-descendant leader, Marino Córdoba of AFRODES.
  • La Liga Contra el Silencio reports on increasing paramilitary activity in Santa Marta, Magdalena, once a stronghold of the AUC blocs headed by “Jorge 40” and Hernán Giraldo. Further west along the Caribbean coast, El Espectador reports on rising paramilitary activity in the Montes de María.
  • Perhaps because members of Colombia’s governing party campaigned improperly for Republican candidates in the United States, President-Elect Joe Biden hasn’t yet made a pro forma phone call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his congratulations, La Silla Vacía reports.

Weekly border update: December 4, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Migrant deaths rise in Arizona

An Arizona Republic investigation finds a “dramatic rise in human smuggling activity across southern Arizona over the past year,” much of it a response to COVID-19-related border closures and rapid migrant expulsions.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Arizona was the part of the border where Border Patrol apprehended the most undocumented migrants. But the decade saw steady declines in Arizona. Asylum-seeking child and family migrants, mostly from Central America, became the majority of all apprehended migrants. Kids and families, who generally seek to be apprehended in order to petition for protection, arrived mostly in Texas and California—not Arizona.

Now, though, with the Trump administration closing off access to asylum and using pandemic measures to quickly expel nearly all apprehended migrants, the migrant population has become much more adult, and much more likely to seek to avoid apprehension. That means traveling with smugglers who will take migrants through remote areas where the chances of getting caught are reduced—like Arizona’s vast, treacherous borderland deserts.

“Once again, Arizona is a top corridor for migrants and smugglers making their illegal journey into the United States,” the Republic reports. CBP’s Tucson Sector ranked 2nd, among CBP’s 9 border sectors, in October 2020 migrant apprehensions, with 11,119. That’s up from 8,373 in September and 6,766 in August. In fiscal year 2019, Tucson had been a distant 4th among the 9 sectors.

That means more people are risking death of dehydration or exposure in Arizona’s deserts. “So far in 2020, southern Arizona has recorded the recovery of 205 migrant remains, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner,” the Arizona Republic reported. That already makes 2020 the third-deadliest year since the Pima Medical Examiner started keeping data in 2020. With a month to go, it places this year “within striking distance to exceed 2010’s record of 222 bodies found in a single year.”

Mexico’s migrant apprehensions increase

Unlike U.S. authorities, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, has continued to allow migrants apprehended near its borders to petition for asylum. COMAR’s updated data show that it received 4,257 asylum requests in November, up from a post-lockdown low of 977 in April. This is only slightly fewer than November 2018 (5,323) and November 2019 (4,548), indicating that migration through Mexico is recovering to pre-pandemic levels. 2020’s asylum requests have come mostly from Hondurans, Haitians, Cubans, Salvadorans, and Venezuelans.

Another indicator is apprehensions. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) reports capturing 12,145 migrants in October. This is the agency’s largest monthly total since October 2019, with the exception of January 2020 when the INM broke up a “caravan” of Hondurans.

Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras make up 96 percent of the INM’s October total, another indicator of a return to pre-pandemic migration levels. The recent migrant population, though, is more adult: only 11% of those apprehended in October were children. In October 2019, when Mexico apprehended a similar number, 23% were children.

INM, which apprehends, detains, and deports migrants, came under strong criticism this week from the Mexican government’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) and non-governmental human rights groups. A statement from CNDH and NGOs warns that under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, INM’s local delegations are increasingly being headed by individuals with a military background and little migration expertise.

A CNDH report released this week faults INM for a lethal March incident at its migrant detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco, near the Guatemala border. Detainees protesting close-quarters detention during the pandemic set fire to mattresses; the smoke asphyxiated a Guatemalan man while guards barred the migrants’ exit and “laughed.”

The investigative website Animal Político found, meanwhile, that INM has tested only 78 of its detainees for COVID-19, and 52 were positive.

More coverage of obstacles Biden will likely face

A Washington Post series, among other media accounts published this week, point to obstacles that the incoming Biden administration might face in undoing Donald Trump’s hardline border security and migration policies. Among them:

  • A reversal of “Remain in Mexico” and other blocks to asylum seekers could face an imminent wave of migration with insufficient capacity to process it.
  • Biden’s “likely stop-work order” on the border wall will face “‘demobilization’ costs of withdrawing crews and equipment, but the contracts have a termination clause that allows the government to break the deals.” Meanwhile, other immigration priorities are “eclipsing calls to tear down portions of the wall that already exist,” according to The New York Times.
  • Reducing deportations will run up against agencies like ICE and CBP that “are secretive, closely adopted President Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda and can be slow to change. They also have labor unions that endorsed Trump.”
  • In general, untangling the Trump administration’s web of restrictive regulations and policies will be difficult, probably requiring a phaseout that is more gradual than Biden officials would prefer. “People are really overwhelmed trying to figure out the sheer issues, the sheer number of pieces you have to coordinate,” someone CNN identifies as “a source familiar with the transition” said. “This is the genius of Stephen Miller.”

Links

  • An early November court filing reported that investigators had not found parents whom DHS had separated from 666 children in 2017 and 2018. Since then, 38 children’s parents have been located, leaving 628. Lawyers say that DHS has been withholding information necessary to locate parents.
  • As of November 30, 44 detainees at ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center had tested positive for COVID-19. This is the worst current outbreak at all ICE detention centers. The El Paso facility suffers from a “sustained failure in leadership” by ICE in a city hit hard by the pandemic, Linda Corchado of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told El Paso Matters.
  • The FBI released violent crime data for 2019, and—as is consistently the case—nearly all U.S. cities near the Mexico border reported lower violent crime rates than the national average. “Spillover violence” from Mexico is quite rare.

Colombia peace update: Week of November 22, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fourth anniversary of the FARC peace accord

On November 24, 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño signed a revised peace accord at a ceremony in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón. Four years later, analysts tend to note an intensification of violence in the past year or two, especially compared to the immediate pre- and post-conflict period. Most find Colombia’s armed conflict fragmenting into a collection of regional conflicts with different dynamics. Some contend that the government has not adapted to this new reality.

Here are some analyses published to coincide with the fourth anniversary:

  • An infographic from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz counts 65% more armed-group actions (318) in the fourth year after accord than it counted in the last year before the accord (192). The ELN, in first place, slightly exceeds dissidents’ activity.
  • “The question beginning to be asked is whether the window of opportunity opened by the accord has closed and we are in the midst of a new cycle of political-military violence, or whether we are just going through a difficult patch in a transition to peace,” notes Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.
  • CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds a slight increase in conflict-related violence so far in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
  • Sergio Jaramillo, the Santos government’s high commissioner for peace during the FARC dialogues, praised some aspects of the Duque government’s accord implementation, but voiced concern about rising violence in “post-conflict” territories.
  • El Espectador published a timeline widget highlighting major peace and conflict events over the past four years.
  • Oft-cited political scientist Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín talked about his new book warning of “A New Cycle of War in Colombia.”
  • “The country has improved a lot in many political and social areas, but there has been a huge deterioration of security in the last two years. We’ve had over 70 massacres and a rise in killings and illegal economies in various areas,” Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación told Al Jazeera.
  • “Strengthening the state’s presence in conflict-affected areas is a work in progress, which needs to be accelerated,” wrote former European Union Special Envoy Eamon Gilmore.

JEP hearing on ex-FARC protections

On November 25 the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) held an 8-hour hearing about threats and killings of demobilized guerrillas. The day before—the 2016 peace accords’ fourth anniversary—Paula Osorio, whose body was found in Yuto, Chocó, became the 243rd former FARC member to be murdered.

Just over 13,000 FARC members demobilized in 2017. At the current rate of one killing every five days, 1,600 ex-combatants will be dead by the end of 2024, said the director of the JEP’s Investigation and Accusations Unit (UIA), Giovanni Álvarez.

The JEP had ordered the government to take “precautionary measures” to protect former FARC members among its defendants. If they are killed or intimidated from testifying, ex-combatants will neither be able to clarify their crimes nor provide restitution to victims.

Álvarez summarized a JEP report about attacks on ex-combatants. Nearly all victims were rank-and-file guerrillas: only 10 of the dead had leadership positions. All but six were men. All of the killings have been concentrated in 17 percent of the country’s 1,100 municipalities.

Martha Janeth Mancera, the acting vice-prosecutor general, testified that as of November 11 the Fiscalía had “clarified”—identified the likely killers—in 108 of 225 cases (48%) it had taken on. She said that of these 108 cases, 44% were likely carried out by FARC dissident groups, 11% by the ELN, 10% by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, and 6% by other criminal structures. Mancera did not specify the likely killers of the other 29 percent.

The dissident groups, Álvarez pointed out, should not be considered as a monolithic bloc. There are two main networks—Gentil Duarte’s group active in 155 municipalities and Iván Márquez’s “Segunda Marquetalia” active in 44—plus “openly narcotized and lumpenized” groups active in 38 municipalities.

The acting vice-prosecutor said that to date, the body had managed to bring 33 cases of ex-combatant killers to sentencing. She blamed the lack of greater progress on a lack of specialized judges “so that we can manage to advance.” She added that the Fiscalía had identified likely masterminds, rather than just “trigger-pullers,” in 52 cases of ex-combatant killings, attempts, threats, or disappearances.

She added that, when ex-combatants receive threats, the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit has been too slow to respond. “We send the alert to the National Protection Unit, but, it must be said calmly, this process is very slow. The most agile thing is to report to the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), which carries out the relocation of the ex-combatant.” In some cases, she added “we’ve had to send more than 10 official requests in which we say that this is an extreme risk case.”

Somos Defensores report

Somos Defensores is a non-governmental organization that documents attacks and killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. It takes care to verify cases, and its numbers are usually similar to those kept by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The group’s latest report, covering the third quarter of 2020, hasn’t yet been posted to its website, but summaries appear at El Espectador and Verdad Abierta. They indicate that:

  • 40 human rights defenders were killed, in 15 departments of Colombia, between July and September.
  • The number of murders stood at 135 by the end of September. Somos Defensores’ tally surpassed its figure for all of 2019, 124, in August.
  • Counting all types of aggression for which a responsible party can be alleged, neo-paramilitary groups are believed responsible for 54 attacks, FARC dissidents for 20, the ELN for 11, and the security forces for 8.

The organization noted that it may be undercounting, as the pandemic has made it difficult to verify killings in the remote territories where they often happen.

Links

  • Human Rights Watch asked Colombia’s Senate not to promote Army Generals Marcos Evangelista Pinto and Edgar Alberto Rodríguez, who commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings in the 2000s.
  • HRW also released a report on March prison protests, just as the COVID-19 lockdowns began, that led to the killing of 24 prisoners in Bogota’s La Modelo jail. According to coroners’ reports, the wounds on the prisoners’ bodies indicated that prison guards were shooting to kill.
  • Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said that forces have eradicated 111,131 hectares of coca so far in 2020, on track for the government’s goal of 130,000 hectares by year’s end.
  • On November 24, the fourth anniversary of the final peace accord, a FARC party senator for the first time presided over a meeting of Colombia’s Senate: Griselda Lobo Silva, once the romantic partner of deceased maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, is the Senate’s second vice-president during the chamber’s 2020-21 session.
  • A November government decree allows lands seized under Colombia’s asset forfeiture laws to be handed over to ex-combatants for approved productive projects. Transferring land to former guerrillas who sought to become farmers was a question the peace accord had omitted.
  • A La Silla Vacía investigation finds 7,491 complaints of police abuse or brutality since 2016, not one of which has even reached the indictment phase.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez, of the recently founded Conflict Responses think tank, map out the FARC dissident group phenomenon around the country.
  • The New York Times published a feature about the arduous journey of Venezuelans leaving Colombia because the pandemic dried up economic opportunities. Once they find that Venezuela is “in free fall,” many are going back to Colombia.
  • The U.S. Air Force sent two giant B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Colombia for “Brother’s Shield,” a Colombian Air-Force-led exercise. The planes, which ceased production in 1962, also participated in the annual regional UNITAS naval exercise, hosted this year by Ecuador.
  • The government’s High Counselor for Stabilization issued a statement reminding the FARC that it has until December 31 to turn over all promised illegally acquired assets.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update documents 28 cases and developments of concern since mid-September.
  • The Bogotá daily El Espectador ran a wide-ranging interview with WOLA’s Adam Isacson.

Weekly border update: November 27, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

Hurricanes expected to bring a rise in migration

In the aftermath of Hurricane Eta, which made landfall in Central America on November 3, and Hurricane Iota, which hit in almost the exact spot on November 16, aid workers and community leaders are telling media to expect a new wave of migration as many of the storms’ hardest-hit victims head north.

The hurricanes come on top of a COVID-19-related economic depression, which added to some of the world’s highest levels of criminal violence, in one of the world’s regions most susceptible to the impact of climate change.

Resulting migration “is going to be much bigger than what we have been seeing,” Jenny Arguello, a sociologist who studies migration flows in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, told the AP. “I believe entire communities are going to leave.” Added Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, “They’ve already started to come, it has begun.”

Journalists from Mexico and Honduras wrote in a Washington Post column that the phrase “we’re taking a trip in January” is being heard in northern Honduras neighborhoods hit by the hurricanes. Alberto Pradilla and Jennifer Ávila recommend that President-Elect Joe Biden offer or expand Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to citizens of the affected countries, and end the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (or Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP) policy, which has sent more than 70,000 asylum-seeking migrants back across the border to await their hearings in Mexico.

Migrants who seek to travel in “caravans” are unlikely to succeed: Mexican and Guatemalan forces have dispersed all attempted caravans since 2019. Those who pay large amounts to migrant smugglers are more likely to make it across Mexico to the U.S. border. But then, it’s not clear how quickly the Biden administration will dismantle MPP or the blanket CDC quarantine order that has quickly expelled most asylum seekers since March.

“If Biden hits reverse too hard, it could cost him politically,” observes Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith. Already, publications like the archconservative Washington Times have begun using the phrase “Biden surge” to describe increases in undocumented migration that actually began during the summer. CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan alleged that “perceived and or anticipated shifts in policies” once Biden takes office are a factor driving the increase.

Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS secretary nominee, may go slow on border and asylum

The Biden transition announced its choice of Alejandro Mayorkas, the Cuban-born son of Jewish parents who headed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the Obama administration, as its nominee for Secretary for Homeland Security. The Washington Post described Mayorkas as “a savvy department veteran” whose choice “thrilled immigrant advocates.”

Mayorkas oversaw the rollout of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, while gaining a reputation for, former acting DHS secretary Rand Beers told The New York Times, balancing “a vigilance of security threats with an interest in helping immigrants in need.”

Bloomberg’s Smith expects a Secretary Mayorkas to take a go-slow approach to dismantling the Trump administration’s curbs on asylum for Central American migrants. “Biden may even negotiate new, though less rigid, agreements to keep some asylum seekers at home as the administration tries to improve living conditions in those countries,” he noted. Much, too, will be up to Biden’s choice to head the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the immigration court system and its interpretation of asylum criteria.

Mayorkas sits on the board of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has played a central role in the humanitarian and legal response to “Remain in Mexico” in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and elsewhere. Still, observers caution that MPP may not disappear immediately after the inauguration. Fernando García of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights told NBC that it remains unclear what will happen to those who have been “remaining in Mexico” for many months already, or how it might apply to a new wave of migrants. “To end it doesn’t mean now we have the capacity to bring everyone back right away and I’m very concerned. How are we going to handle it?”

McAllen processing facility closes for renovation

Processing capacity is the most crucial short-term need when a large number of protection-seeking migrants appears at the border. Border authorities need the ability to receive migrants at ports of entry, then quickly take personal and biometric information, scan for health issues, begin asylum paperwork, and enter people into refugee resettlement or alternatives-to-detention programs.

In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, a warehouse-sized Central Processing Facility (CPC) played that role since the Obama administration’s CBP established it in 2014. Though migrants’ stays there rarely exceeded 72 hours, the facility gained notoriety for dehumanizing images of the cheap chain-link “cages” the facility used to separate groups.

The Washington Post reports that the CPC is to undergo renovation, in part using funds for upgrades in a 2019 emergency supplemental appropriation. This time, the Post notes, the chain link will be replaced “with clear plastic dividers,” with “more recreation and play areas for children, as well as more permanent kitchen, infirmary and shower facilities.”

The renovation will take a year and a half—which means no processing infrastructure will be available in the Rio Grande Valley if there is a wave of protection-seeking migration early in the Biden administration. The most likely solution will be to construct something temporary, like a “soft-sided” or tent-based facility.

Links

  • Laura Weiss at The New Republic and Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post explore transitional justice or other non-repetition guarantees that a Biden administration might pursue to hold Trump officials accountable for “one of the largest-scale, ethnically motivated human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government since Japanese internment.”
  • The latest in a two-year series of quarterly reports on “metering” at border ports of entry, published by the University of Texas’s Strauss Center, finds approximately 15,690 asylum seekers, in 9 Mexican border cities, currently on waitlists to have a chance to ask officials for protection.
  • The Trump administration, reversing itself, agreed to delay the imminent deportation of as many as a dozen women who alleged medical abuse at the Irwin County ICE detention center in Georgia.
  • NBC News reports on 28 migrant children and their asylum-seeking parents who are now facing deportation after months in a family detention center, where they refused an ICE offer to allow the children to stay in the United States, in custody of the office of Refugee Resettlement, if they separated from their parents.
  • A new GAO report on the status of eminent domain cases for wall construction, mostly in South Texas, detailed plans to acquire 1,016 tracts of private land totaling 3,752 acres.
  • The Hill reports on a “coming showdown” between the Trump administration and House Democrats about whether border wall money will be in the 2021 federal budget. Congress needs to pass a budget—or approve a continuing resolution— by December 11 to avoid a “government shutdown”, and the House and Senate bills differ wildly on border wall funding. There is some likelihood, though, that Joe Biden, who has pledged to stop wall construction, would be able to transfer any wall-building funds in the 2021 budget to other priorities.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

On Sunday evening I posted this tweet in response to a statement from Colombia’s Defense Minister that, while red meat for his political base, is just incredibly off-base as a strategy.

Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador, reached out to me about this. We had a good conversation, and the newspaper did a good job of translating my gringo Spanish in a piece posted last night. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

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