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.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




Writing

Weekly Border Update: April 16, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.

Tucson Police Chief is CBP commissioner nominee

On April 12 the Biden White House revealed its nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that includes Border Patrol and all land, sea, and air ports of entry. Chris Magnus, the current chief of police of Tucson, Arizona, would be only the second Senate-confirmed CBP commissioner since January 2017: except for Kevin McAleenan’s 13-month tenure in 2018 and 2019, all commissioners since then have been in an “acting” role.

A native of Michigan, Magnus has served as police chief in Fargo, North Dakota; Richmond, California; and, since 2016, Tucson, a city about an hour’s drive from the U.S.-Mexico border. While heading this 1,000-person department, he has favored community policing, de-escalation, and other law enforcement strategies often labeled as “progressive.” Magnus was the 2020 recipient of the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF’s) Leadership Award. (The Obama administration, under then-CBP commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, had hired PERF to perform a 2014 review of the agency’s use-of-force policies.)

Though he opposed a 2019 ballot initiative to declare Tucson a “sanctuary city” refusing to share information with ICE about detained individuals, Magnus has a broadly liberal record, which at times has earned him “frosty” relations with Border Patrol, as the Washington Post put it.

  • In 2014, as chief of the Bay Area city of Richmond, California, Magnus was photographed holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign.
  • In March 2017, he cut short his department’s cooperation with a Border Patrol manhunt for an apprehended migrant who had escaped a hospital, angering the agency. The following year, Border Patrol’s hardline union, which endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, called Magnus “an ultraliberal social engineer who was given a badge and a gun by the City of Tucson” in a Facebook post.
  • In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Magnus argued that the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies were complicating law enforcement because undocumented communities were less willing to come forward with information.
  • In June 2018 he tweeted strong opposition to the Trump administration’s child separations policy, asking, “Is this consistent with the oath you took to serve & protect? Is this humane or moral? Does this make your community safer?”
  • He opposed the Trump administration’s border wall in December 2018 congressional testimony and a February 2019 NPR interview.
  • In 2019, amid an increase in asylum-seeking migration, Magnus tweeted, “it’s worth being reminded why human beings flee from their homelands in the first place (not unlike a lot of our ancestors).”
  • In 2020, Magnus refused to accept so-called “Stonegarden” grants to local law enforcement from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), because the administration was prohibiting expenditures for humanitarian aid to asylum seekers.

Magnus’s nomination received statements of support from both of Arizona’s Democratic senators. If confirmed, he would be the first openly gay CBP commissioner.

The White House also revealed its nominee to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, the DHS component that runs legal immigration, including refugee and asylum processing). As expected, it is Ur Jaddou, who was a senior USCIS official during the Obama administration. During the Trump years, Jaddou worked at the progressive immigration reform group America’s Voice, where she ran an oversight campaign called DHS Watch.

The Biden administration has yet to name a director to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Unaccompanied children situation may be easing; family expulsions continue

Data about unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody point to a modest easing of the situation, after weeks of concern about children packed into inadequate CBP and Border Patrol facilities. As of April 14:

  • Border Patrol had apprehended a daily average of 431 unaccompanied non-Mexican children so far this week, down from an average of 475 per day the previous week and 489 the week before that.
  • The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has been taking over 700 children per day out of CBP custody during the past two weeks, placing them in its network of shelters and emergency facilities.
  • With more kids leaving CBP custody than entering it, the number stuck in CBP’s holding facilities has dropped sharply, from 5,767 on March 28 to 2,581 on April 14. CNN reported on April 12, however, that the average child still spends about 122 hours in CBP custody, far exceeding the 72 hours required by law.
  • The number in ORR’s shelter network has marched steadily upward, from 11,551 on March 23 to 19,537 on April 14. It should top 20,000 any day now.
  • ORR still faces challenges in getting kids out of its shelters, placing them with relatives or sponsors in the United States. ORR discharged a daily average of 281 children per day last week, which increased only to 283 per day so far this week.
  • Subtracting the number leaving ORR custody from the number newly entering CBP custody reveals the net daily overall increase of children in the U.S. government’s care. That daily increase averaged 194 children per day last week, and 148 per day so far this week. For the population of unaccompanied kids in U.S. custody to fall, this daily number needs to fall into negative territory. On this chart, the green needs to start exceeding the blue:

Getting children out of ORR custody is the most urgent bottleneck right now. While more than 80 percent of children have relatives in the United States, shelters still must perform some vetting to ensure that they are not inadvertently handing children off to traffickers. The agency has also been occupied trying to stand up large temporary facilities around the country to create space to get kids out of CBP’s austere holding spaces.

Reuters reports that White House officials—especially domestic policy adviser and Obama-era national security advisor Susan Rice—are exerting pressure on ORR and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to move faster. A source tells the wire service that “getting yelled at” in interagency meetings is taking a toll on ORR and HHS staff. “Everyone’s working around the clock, and there’s a big morale issue,” an official said. “These are people who signed up to help kids.”

ORR “has temporarily waived some vetting requirements, including most background checks on adults who live in the same household as sponsors who are close relatives,” according to Reuters, and has reduced the amount of time children spend in its shelters from 42 to 31 days. Still, Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, told Reuters that the majority of kids in the emergency shelters still don’t have case managers assigned to them to begin vetting their relatives.

As the number of unaccompanied children newly arriving declines, it’s likely that the number of migrants arriving as intact family units continues to increase. While we haven’t seen numbers from April, this was the fastest-growing category of apprehended migrant at the border in March, growing 174 percent over February.

Unlike unaccompanied children, the Biden administration is endeavoring to use a Trump-era pandemic order to expel back into Mexico, in a matter of hours, as many families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (the “Northern Triangle” countries) as it can. In nearly all cases, these so-called “Title 42” expulsions happen without regard to families’ fear of returning to their countries.

As the number of family members from the Northern Triangle increases (40,582 in March), Mexico has hit limits. It is accepting expulsions of a larger number, but a smaller percentage, of families: about 31 percent of the total in March. Mexico cites a late 2020 law that prohibits detention of children in adult facilities. Mexico’s law “certainly snuck up on us,” a senior Biden administration official told the Washington Post.

Of the nine sectors into which CBP divides the border, by far the most arrive in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. There, Border Patrol is processing families outdoors under the Anzalduas International Bridge near McAllen and at a nearly adjacent temporary site known as TOPS. Indoor processing happens at a large tent facility in nearby Donna. These sites are mostly off-limits to reporters, but the Rio Grande Valley Monitor shared some drone footage this week showing Border Patrol agents with bullhorns lining families up on benches.

CBP continues to expel large numbers of Central American families, particularly those with older children, each day from the Rio Grande Valley into dangerous Mexican border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros. When Mexico refuses expulsions in this region, DHS puts about 200 family members per day on planes to El Paso and San Diego, from where they expel them into Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. (100 per day per city appears to be a limit that Mexico has set.)

Expelled migrants interviewed by the New Humanitarian in Juárez and by the San Diego Union Tribune in Tijuana coincide in saying that U.S. agents “tricked” them, lying that they were being admitted into the United States while boarding them on aircraft out of Texas. They only discovered they were returned to Mexico after their U.S. escorts left them there. Both border cities have seen distraught Central American parents forced to ask strangers what city they were in.

In Tijuana, Mexican authorities give the families a 30-day permit to remain in the country with instructions to return to their home countries. They are then taken to one of the city’s very full, mostly charity-run, migrant shelters.

Meanwhile, as last week’s update noted, more than 11 expelled families per day appear to be making the terrible decision to separate while in Mexican territory. Knowing that unaccompanied children aren’t being expelled, parents who find themselves returned to Mexico are sending their children to walk north, across the border, alone. CNN—which reported that Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol had apprehended, in a 28-day period, 435 unaccompanied children who had already been expelled with their parents—spoke to tearful expelled parents who had said goodbye to their children at the borderline.

Mexico’s deployment of forces gets scrutiny

Senior officials revealed this week that the Biden administration recently reached agreements with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to deploy more security forces to deter migration, without mention of migrants’ protection or asylum needs. These agreements appear to be informal rather than written.

Tyler Moran, the White House Domestic Policy Council’s special assistant to the President for immigration, told MSNBC on April 12, “We’ve secured agreements for them to put more troops on their own border. Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala have all agreed to do this.” Moran insisted that such action “not only is going to prevent the traffickers, and the smugglers, and cartels that take advantage of the kids on their way here, but also to protect those children.”

Later that day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave reporters a bit more detail.

[T]here have been a series of bilateral discussions between our leadership and the regional governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. Through those discussions, there was a commitment, as you mentioned, to increase border security.

So, Mexico made the decision to maintain 10,000 troops at its southern border, resulting in twice as many daily migrant interdictions. Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route. Honduras surged 7,000 police and military to disperse a large contingent of migrants.

Psaki attributed these moves to “discussions with the region about what steps can be taken to help reduce the number of migrants who are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border,” adding, “I think the objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey and make crossing the borders more—more difficult.

This was news in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, where leaders had made no prior reference to agreements with the United States. Honduras’s defense minister, Fredy Díaz, confirmed that an agreement existed. He added that at the moment, his country is not moving new security forces to its border with Guatemala to interdict migrants. Instead, he told the Honduran network HRN, his ministry is working on a plan for military support to police to slow migration, insisting that “the armed forces have stood out for their respect for the law and human rights.”

On April 13 Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, confirmed to reporters that his government had deployed at least 12,000 officials to the country’s southern region, including immigration agents, soldiers and national guardsmen, and health and child welfare officials. Mexico had said on March 22 that nearly 9,000 troops and guardsmen were stationed near its northern and southern borders.

López Obrador portrayed the deployment as an effort to protect migrant children. “We’ve never seen trafficking of minors on this scale,” he said, adding, “To protect children we are going to reinforce the surveillance, the protection, the care on our southern border because it’s to defend human rights.” The president appeared to allege that smugglers are using children to help migrants pass as family units, a practice that occurs, but not frequently.

López Obrador said he will meet next week with the governors of Mexico’s southern states that border Guatemala and Belize, and that the director of the country’s child and family welfare agency (DIF) would relocate for some time to the southern border-zone city of Tapachula. He promised that Mexico would accompany the United States in increasing investments to create economic opportunity and alleviate migration’s “push factors” in Central America, including through aid programs like “Sembrando Vida” and “Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro,” which to date have devoted very few resources.

Tonatiuh Guillén, a leading Mexican migration expert who briefly headed Mexico’s migration authority (INM) at the beginning of the López Obrador government, lamented to the Guardian that his country’s migration system has “turned into a very strong and very heavy control apparatus, largely due to pressure from the U.S. government.” Reporting from the remote Mexico-Guatemala border crossing of Frontera Corozal, however, Guardian reporter David Agren saw no evidence of a crackdown: “it looked like business as usual” as Central American families crossed the Usumacinta River and began a long walk through the edges of the Lacandón jungle en route to Palenque, Chiapas.

Some Mexican security forces are arrayed along this jungle route, Agren reported, manning checkpoints. “But migrants said they simply paid to pass through – or were robbed by the officers they met.” The prevalence of corruption among the Mexican forces deployed to control movement in the southern border zone is a large unaddressed factor as the López Obrador government sends more personnel. “It’s a cartel. They’re acting in cahoots with smugglers…with taxi and bus drivers. It’s a network taking advantage of migrants,” Father Gabriel Romero of the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique told Agren. Added Guillén, the former INM director: “Governments in Mexico, the United States and Central America have never really put much of an effort into controlling these trafficking organizations.”

No pause to border wall property seizures in Texas

The White House’s 2022 discretionary funding request to Congress, a summary document known as the “skinny budget,” would end border wall construction. It requests $1.2 billion for CBP’s border security infrastructure needs, but specifies that none will go toward border barriers. It also “proposes the cancellation of prior-year balances that are unobligated at the end of 2021,” shutting down any previously funded construction.

That doesn’t necessarily stop border wall construction, however, during fiscal 2021, which ends on September 30. For now, wall-building has been “paused” since Inauguration Day, but contracts have not been canceled. As noted in last week’s update, CBP may have communicated to DHS a preference to continue building in areas where the pause in construction has left “gaps.”

In south Texas, where most land bordering the Rio Grande is privately held, the Justice Department has not stopped eminent domain proceedings to seize more than 215 property owners’ land for wall construction. On April 13 the Cavazos family, which has held riverfront property since Texas was under Spanish rule, saw a court order the condemnation of 6 1/2 acres of its farmland. “We are utterly devastated,” Baudilla Cavazos said in a statement. “We thought President Joe Biden would protect us. Now we’ve lost our land. We don’t even know what comes next.”

In February, the Justice Department had postponed the Cavazos family’s land seizure case, which has been before a U.S. district court. When it came up again in April, Justice did not seek to postpone again, for unclear reasons.

Throughout the border zone, environmental activists and tribal leaders “are urging the government to begin habitat restoration efforts and take down sections of wall that are blocking wildlife migration pathways so that animals can once again move freely,” the Arizona Republic reported in a very detailed piece documenting damage to desert ecosystems. In Arizona, “We watched in horror as construction crews dynamited our ancestors’ gravesites, chopped ceremonial plants to bits and cleaved our sacred lands in two with a deadly mass of metal,” wrote Tohono O’odham Nation community organizer Hon’mana Seukteoma in a Medium column. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, called for a return to the formula of immigration reform with a large increase in border security, which he called “high wall, big gate.”

Links

  • In a new edition of WOLA’s Podcast, four staff experts look at Mexico’s response to the increase in migration, including Mexico’s U.S.-encouraged deployment of security forces and acceptance of more expelled Central American families.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris has been learning about “root causes” of migration from Central America, including a virtual meeting on April 13 with directors of several organizations (including WOLA). She may visit the region “soon.” As the Biden administration’s point person for working with the region, the vice president faces the dilemma of working with Central American leaders who “are considered complicit” in creating some of the conditions causing people to migrate, the Los Angeles Times observes.
  • Local activists ridiculed Republican members of Congress who, on a visit to the Rio Grande Valley, boarded a Texas Department of Public Security gunboat. Wearing tactical vests and with a Fox News crew in tow, the delegation motored past a playground, waterslide, and picnic areas on the Mexican side of the river.
  • Asked repeatedly about the border and migration situation at an April 13 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the general and admiral who command U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command sought to emphasize the multiple, complex causes of the current large-scale migration and the need for a “whole of government” response.
  • A report and series of working papers from the Migration Policy Institute surveys how “to lay the foundation for a regional migration system that privileges safe, orderly, and legal movement,” evaluating current legal frameworks and asylum capacity in Mexico, the Northern Triangle, Costa Rica, and Panama.
  • At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux talked to beleaguered humanitarian volunteers helping asylum-seeking families whom Border Patrol, upon releasing them from custody, is leaving in Arizona desert towns with few services.
  • In a key family separation lawsuit, the Biden administration’s Justice Department has decided not to share internal documents revealing the Trump administration’s decisionmaking leading up to the 2018 “zero tolerance” policy that caused DHS to take thousands of migrant children away from their parents. Among the documents that will remain classified, NBC News reports, is “the agenda from a May 3, 2018 meeting, which… included a show of hands vote to move forward with separating families.”
  • Reuters points out that the White House’s 2022 “skinny budget” includes a 22 percent increase in funding for internal affairs offices at CBP and ICE, partially to “ensure that workforce complaints—‘including those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs’—are investigated quickly.”

Colombia peace update: April 10, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Updates on the situation at the Venezuela border

Fighting continued this week on the Venezuelan side of the common border in Apure, across from Colombia’s department of Arauca, between Venezuelan forces and a Colombian guerrilla dissident group. While confirmed information remains scarce, the intensity of combat and number of casualties appeared to be less than in the prior two weeks, since Venezuela’s initial March 21 attack on dissident targets. The combativeness of Colombian and Venezuelan officials’ statements, however, has intensified.

“We’re witnessing the escalation of tensions between the two countries, which is extremely dangerous,” observed defense analyst Rocío San Miguel of the Venezuelan think tank Control Ciudadano, adding, “I don’t remember, in terms of duration, a similar situation in the last 30 years.”

Indeed, Venezuelan forces likely did not anticipate that the 10th Front dissident group—whose leaders, and some of whose members, spent years as FARC guerrillas—would fight back with such ferocity. On April 5 Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino reported that eight Army personnel had been killed since March 21, including four officers. A mortar misfire on April 3 killed three members of an artillery unit, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel, and wounded nine others. Gen. Padrino added that a total of 34 troops had been injured, and that Venezuelan forces had killed 9 rearmed guerrillas and captured 33.

Despite the continued fighting, Venezuelan officials insisted that they are consolidating control of the Apure border zone. Measures include deployment of a temporary military command, an Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) for the region. (Reuters reports that “Venezuela’s military maintains standing ZODI units for each of its 23 states and the capital Caracas.”) In the zone, military personnel are restricting the population’s movements. Units from elsewhere are being reassigned to Apure and equipped with Russian-made Orlan-10 surveillance drones.

Venezuela continues to face charges that it is focusing its efforts on only one of three Colombian guerrilla, or post-guerrilla, groups active in Apure. Rocío San Miguel, according to Tal Cual, “pointed out that the Armed Forces’ actions do not seem to be similar with respect to all the armed groups present in the area, and that there seems to be a pattern of neutrality with respect to the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN).”

Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, alleged that Venezuela is deliberately favoring a third group, the “Nueva Marquetalia” FARC dissidents headed by Iván Márquez, who was the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in the 2012-2016 peace talks but rearmed in 2019. “The objective of the operations there is not protection of the border, it’s protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.

Security expert Jorge Mantilla told the BBC that something must have happened to cause a breakdown in “arrangements, sometimes tacit, for the distribution of rents and territorial control” between Venezuelan forces and the three Colombian groups, causing Caracas to target the 10th Front.

Venezuelan officials haven’t addressed charges of armed-group favoritism, instead claiming that they are dealing with the effects of Colombia’s failure to govern its side of the border. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Colombia a “failed state” and a “narco-state” lacking control of its territory. “I’d say it’s Colombia’s ineptitude, but sometimes I think this is in their interest,” added Gen. Padrino.

The humanitarian toll of the fighting continues to be grave. At least 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Arauca, Colombian officials say. Venezuelan officials claim the number is lower, insisting the border municipality of La Victoria had a total population of about 3,500. They also deny displaced people’s claims that Venezuelan forces extrajudicially executed civilians during the operation.

Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes said that some residents of the region have remained there amid continuing combat, mainly out of fear of losing their livestock or other property, or having their houses burned or sacked. Tarazona also alleged that elements from the 28th Front FARC dissidents—part of the same “First Front” dissident network as the 10th—were arriving in the region to reinforce the 10th Front in Apure.

Tarazona and FundaRedes don’t have a 100 percent accuracy record, though. The Venezuelan NGO director also alleged that Rodrigo Londoño, the maximum leader of the demobilized FARC’s legal political party, Comunes, had been holding quarterly coordination meetings with leaders of both main dissident networks. This made little sense to observers within Colombia, where Londoño has been a strong advocate of the peace accord and outspoken critic of the dissidents. It’s also hard to imagine the party leader, who is 62 and has had health problems, shaking his police guard for days to meet with dissident leaders in the jungle. “There is absolutely nothing that identifies me with them, and I am not an a**hole,” Londoño said in a video.

Amid concerns about the remote—but not zero—possibility of the border situation escalating into conflict with Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza said that his regime would submit a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres asking the UN to mediate or provide good offices, “establishing a direct and permanent communication channel” between the two neighboring countries, whose de facto governments maintain no diplomatic relations, “to resolve all issues related to the border.” This runs along somewhat similar lines to a civil society proposal, issued a week earlier, calling on the UN to name a special envoy to the border crisis.

At the same time, other Venezuelan officials issued more bellicose rhetoric. “The incursions into Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque,” said Gen. Padrino, the defense minister. Diosdado Cabello, a politician often considered the second most-powerful individual in the Maduro regime, was characteristically even more blunt. “Colombia has declared, internally, that it is going to try to set the table for U.S. imperialism to attack Venezuela. They will be making a mistake because if we have a war…with Colombia, we are going to do it in their territory.”

A decree makes it harder to challenge the president, and fumigation, through legal means

With a new decree changing how citizens can seek redress before the presidency, “the government of Iván Duque made an unprecedented display of power,” in the words of the news website La Silla Vacía. While it raises strong concerns about democratic checks and balances and will certainly face constitutional challenges, the decree could open the door to a much faster restart of a controversial U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where farmers grow coca.

The change affects the “tutela,” a figure in Colombian law that gives citizens the right to seek a quick response from courts when government is infringing their rights. Supporters view the tutela as a major victory won in the drafting of Colombia’s progressively worded 1991 Constitution. It has been unpopular on Colombia’s political right, which views it as an obstacle, since it gives minority interests and activists the ability to block policies’ implementation.

Decree 333 of 2021, which Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz issued on April 6, states that from now on (and possibly retroactively—it’s not clear), all tutelas filed against the President, or considered important for national security—like those having to do with coca eradication—will no longer go to courts of law. They are to be considered by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), a Bogotá-based high court that makes administrative rulings.

Going to the Council of State will make it harder for communities to challenge a re-start of the aerial fumigation program. This program, active since 1994, was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns about spraying the chemical glyphosate over residential coca-growing zones. In response to a tutela, in 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of health, environmental, and consultative requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the spraying, as Iván Duque has pledged to do. In 2020, as the pandemic made it difficult for communities to participate in consultations about renewed spraying, another tutela resulted in regional court rulings that paused the controversial program’s restart.

The decree may put fumigation on a fast track to re-starting. First, it appears to offer a way around regional courts that have ruled on the side of affected communities. Second, filing complaints with the Bogotá-based State Council is more challenging for people in the very remote areas where coca is cultivated and spraying may happen. “There is a direct violation of the right to equality,” explained Diana Bernal of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which has represented communities subject to fumigation. “The decisions will fall to judges who lack regional context, and who will not have the same ability to go deeper because the plaintiffs will be in remote areas.”

Either way, if the decree stands, fumigation could restart in as little as a couple of months, once the government determines that it has met the Constitutional Court’s requirements. “The Government believes that the current actions will favor it, and that is why announcements have been made that spraying will begin in a short time,” an unnamed Justice Ministry source told La Silla Vacía.

Beyond coca fumigation, the new decree raises concerns about democratic checks and balances. It presumes that the Presidency can “choose its own judge” on a constitutional issue, cutting out courts that have proved more likely to issue rulings unfavorable to it. “The proposed reform is subtle and may go unnoticed by the general public,” wrote EAFIT University constitutional law professor Estaban Hoyos. “The Duque government is issuing decrees for its own interest, intending to evade judges’ oversight of its actions or omissions that disregard fundamental rights. This is profoundly undemocratic.” Hoyos recalled to El Espectador that President Duque is further weakening checks and balances at a time when he has already named political allies to the leadership of oversight bodies like the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

It’s not at all clear that such a change can happen by decree, bypassing the legislature. Law professors and opposition legislators, probably together with legal NGOs, are preparing a legal challenge to the decree. It is not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.

The peace accord’s special congressional seats for victims suffer a new setback

The 2016 peace accord had sought to “place victims at its center,” according to its negotiators. As part of that commitment, it promised to create special congressional districts that would represent 16 regions of Colombia hardest-hit by the conflict. For two congressional terms (eight years), residents of those zones would elect to Colombia’s House of Representatives candidates chosen by victims’ organizations, not political parties.

This never happened, and while Colombia’s Constitutional Court considers whether to make it happen, the special congressional districts plan suffered another setback this week with an unfavorable recommendation from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

The long story begins in 2017, as Colombia’s Congress was passing a series of laws to make peace accord commitments official. Among those was a bill creating the special districts for victims. The measure passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November 2017.

That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption. Still, that argument has not prospered in lower court challenges.

In December 2019 Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case of the special electoral zones and the 2017 Senate vote. This week the Procuraduría issued its recommendation to the Constitutional Court, which dealt another blow to the plan to create the special districts for victims. The agency—now headed by a political ally of President Duque, whose party opposes the seats—called for the Court to strike down the measure because it lacks sufficient “immediacy and subsidiarity.”

The Constitutional Court could still decide that the special congressional zones are valid, ignoring the Procuraduría opinion and making this peace accord commitment to victims a reality. It is not clear how the Court might rule, or whether it would issue a decision with enough lead time before Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections.

Links

  • The UN Verification Mission issued its latest quarterly report, which counted 14 murders of former FARC combatants and 24 killings of social leaders during the previous 3 months. 262 former FARC members of about 13,000 who demobilized, or 2 percent, have been killed since the group demobilized in 2017. The report also noted that “several actors… continue to question the Government’s view of the development programs with a territorial focus [PDETs], claiming that its approach is not in line with the Comprehensive Rural Reform as envisioned in the Final Agreement.”
  • WOLA published its latest monthly alert on Colombia’s nationwide human rights and humanitarian situation.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed a phone call to Colombian President Iván Duque on April 5. They discussed “ways to renew our focus on issues including climate change, the protection of human rights, and the regional economic recovery from the pandemic,” as well as “the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela and Colombia’s efforts to promote democracy throughout the region.”
  • The Colombian government’s State Legal Agency (ANDJE) asked the Constitutional Court to review a Supreme Court order calling on the National Police to curb rights abuses during social protests. It argued that the right to protest should be regulated because “the public will take advantage of it, ‘discrediting the police’s authority,’” El Espectador reported.
  • The ELN carried out 58 percent fewer offensive actions (27), was involved in 30 percent fewer combat incidents (14), and was responsible for 9 percent fewer deaths (19) during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think tank.
  • A Bogotá court met on Tuesday and Friday to consider the Prosecutor-General’s (Fiscalía’s) controversial request to drop witness-tampering charges against former president Álvaro Uribe.
  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed an 898 million peso (US$245,000) no-bid contract with a public relations firm that Minister Diego Molano “knows very well,” El Espectador reported. The contract seeks “to improve ‘public perception’ and ‘protect the collective imagination’” about the Defense Ministry.
  • As the former FARC leadership decides whether to accept the JEP’s charges of ordering and overseeing tens of thousands of kidnappings of civilians, its members are worried about their historical legacy, reports La Silla Vacía. “They fear they will go down in history as a criminal gang that committed crimes against humanity if they accept the charges against their leaders.”

Weekly border update: April 9, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here

CBP reports its March migration data: key trends

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported encountering 172,331 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in March. This mostly happened between the border’s official ports of entry, where CBP’s Border Patrol component had 168,195 “encounters” or apprehensions, a 72 percent increase over February’s total of 97,549. This was Border Patrol’s largest monthly total in exactly 20 years, since March 2001.

Of these 168,195 encounters:

  • 101,897 (61 percent) were people who ended up expelled rapidly under the so-called “Title 42” pandemic order issued in March 2020. Mexico has agreed to take Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants expelled back across the border, with some exceptions discussed below.
Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • About 28 percent were people who had been expelled before, or “recidivist” in CBP’s terminology. This means there is quite a bit of double (or triple) counting, and the actual number of people encountered at the border is smaller.
  • 35 percent were from Mexico, 25 percent were from Honduras, 20 percent were from Guatemala, 6 percent were from El Salvador, and 14 percent were from other countries.
  • This means that in one month, Border Patrol encountered 46 citizens of Mexico for every 100,000 Mexican citizens living in Mexico; 146 citizens of El Salvador for every 100,000 in El Salvador; 194 citizens of Guatemala for every 100,000 in Guatemala; and 429 citizens of Honduras for every 100,000 in Honduras.
Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • 96,628, or 57 percent, were single adults, a 40 percent increase over February. This is the largest number of single adults in the 114 months for which we have demographic data (since October 2011). 87 percent (84,545) were expelled under Title 42. The majority (57 percent) came from Mexico, 14 percent were from Guatemala, 11 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 13 percent from other countries.
  • 52,904, or 31 percent, were members of families (parents with children), a 174 percent increase over February. This is the fifth-largest number of family members in the 114 months for which we have demographic data. 33 percent (17,345) were expelled under Title 42. 47 percent came from Honduras, 22 percent were from Guatemala, 8 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 20 percent from other countries.
  • According to the New York Times, Border Patrol encountered “more than 1,360” family members on March 28 and expelled less than 16 percent (219). On March 26 the agency encountered “more than 2,100 family members and expelled less than 10 percent (200).
Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • 18,663, or 11 percent, were children arriving unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, a 101 percent increase over February. This is the largest number of unaccompanied children in the 114 months for which we have demographic data, significantly breaking the earlier record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Almost no children (7) were expelled under Title 42, as the Biden administration is refusing to expel children alone without giving them access to protection. 47 percent came from Guatemala, 33 percent were from Honduras, 12 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 1 percent from other countries.

CBP encountered 4,136 migrants at its official ports of entry, which are generally closed to “inessential” travel and people without documents under pandemic measures. 73 percent were single adults.

As of April 7, a record 20,596 unaccompanied children were in U.S. government custody. Of these, 16,489 were in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), including several temporary emergency facilities set up in recent weeks. The remainder—4,107—are stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate holding and processing facilities, waiting for new ORR space to open up.

The overall trends for unaccompanied children are promising, though:

  • Those newly apprehended by Border Patrol are decreasing, from over 600 per day two weeks ago to an average under 500 per day today.
  • Those in Border Patrol custody fell to 4,107 on April 7, from a high of 5,767 on March 28, as more children have been transferred to ORR’s new facilities.
  • Daily transfers from Border Patrol to ORR have increased from less than 500 per day two weeks ago, to well over 700 per day on most recent days. Still, a child’s average stay in Border Patrol’s holding spaces is more than 135 hours. The law requires that it not exceed 72 hours.
  • As a result, the ORR shelter population of 16,489 represents a huge increase from the 11,551 children in shelters on March 23. ORR is “set to open at least 11 emergency housing sites with 18,200 beds at convention centers, work camps, a church hall and military posts in Texas and California,” CBS News reports.
  • ORR seeks to minimize children’s stay in shelters by placing them with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while their needs for protection or asylum are assessed. Transfers out of ORR custody are increasing, but only exceeded 300 per day for the first time on April 7. The number being newly apprehended by Border Patrol still exceeds the number being transferred to families or sponsors by roughly 150 per day.
Click the image to enlarge. Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.

While the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42, it is expelling as many families with children as it can. 80 percent of families Border Patrol encounters are from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), and Mexico has agreed to take in expelled citizens of the latter countries. Mexico can only take so many, however; as a result—as noted above—about two-thirds of encountered families were not expelled in March.

This contradicts President Biden’s statement at his March 25 press conference that “We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming.” An unnamed Biden administration official—apparently trying to reassure critics—told the Dallas Morning News, “We are doing our best to expel under Title 42 authority, where we can.”

Families whom Mexico does not allow to be expelled get released into the U.S. interior with an order to appear in immigration court. In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, where the largest number of Central American migrants arrive, the demand appears to be overwhelming Border Patrol’s processing capability. The Associated Press reported that “U.S. authorities are releasing migrant families on the Mexican border without notices to appear in immigration court or sometimes without any paperwork at all” in order to save time and ease pressure.

It is not clear which families Mexico will and won’t take back under Title 42. “It doesn’t seem to have rhyme or reason,” Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales told the Wall Street Journal, which cited a CBP spokesperson explaining that expulsion decisions “were on a ‘case-by-case basis,’ based on factors including COVID-19 protocols, holding capacity, Mexican law and migrants’ health situations.”

CBP’s data for the fiscal year so far (October-March) show a wide variation across the nine sectors into which the agency divides the border. In the Rio Grande Valley, 32 percent of families get expelled to Mexico. The number is much higher in El Paso (88 percent) or Tucson (76 percent). The Rio Grande Valley may be lowest because authorities in  the Mexican state across that part of the border, Tamaulipas, are generally refusing expulsions of families with children under seven years old.

Central American families who do get expelled into Tamaulipas find themselves homeless in one of the most violence-torn states in all of Mexico. A Honduran mother in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, which is disputed by factions of Mexico’s Gulf and Northeast cartels, told the Dallas Morning News that Border Patrol “dropped [her and her child] off at the international bridge into downtown Reynosa at 1 a.m. Several other immigrants said they had been dropped off in the middle of the night, too.” Under non-pandemic circumstances, this would wildly violate the terms of the U.S.-Mexico repatriation agreements, as it represents a grave threat to the migrants’ security. Under Title 42, though, Border Patrol or CBP simply leave the families at all hours in the middle of the border bridge.

At a park in downtown Reynosa about a block from the border bridge, expelled Central American families have begun to congregate around a gazebo. The scene threatens to resemble a recently disbanded tent encampment in the nearby border city of Matamoros, where over 1,000 Central American family members subject to the now-defunct “Remain in Mexico” program lived for over a year. “I have a big concern that the numbers will increase to the point where we have a refugee camp like in Matamoros,” Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley told the Dallas Morning News.

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, a cofounder of the “Sidewalk School” that offers lessons to the children of asylum-seeking kids stuck in Mexico, told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that Reynosa is much more dangerous than Matamoros. While her group accepted U.S. volunteers to support its work in Matamoros, the security situation makes that impossible in Reynosa. “We’re not bringing any Americans into this because of the cartels. We just keep ourselves safe at all times and we keep our heads down and mind our business.”

CNN, meanwhile, reviewed Border Patrol data indicating that many expelled families are separating inside Mexico: Parents are sending their children back across the border unaccompanied, knowing that they will be taken in and eventually placed with relatives inside the United States. The potential number of family separations is jaw-dropping: “From February 24 to March 23, there were 435 incidents in the south Texas region where children were apprehended crossing the border alone after previously being expelled with their family,” CNN reports.

Envoy visits Central America as USAID sends a team

Ricardo Zúñiga, a veteran diplomat who since March 22 has been the State Department’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle, visited Guatemala and El Salvador this week. His purpose appeared to be to get to know some of the key actors in both countries—in government, the judiciary, and civil society—while laying the groundwork for a future U.S. aid package aimed at addressing the “root causes” of migration from the region.

In Guatemala on April 6, Zúñiga and National Security Council trans-border director Katie Tobin met with President Alejandro Giammattei and senior cabinet members, as well as with non-governmental organization leaders and judicial sector representatives, including the country’s special prosecutor against impunity and a judge who has been recognized for her bravery. At a press conference, Zúñiga indicated that, in addition to economic aid and supporting reformers, the Biden administration is seeking means “to create legal means for migration so that people do not have to use irregular and dangerous routes.”

The U.S. envoy’s visit to El Salvador on April 7 was a bit rockier, as the country’s populist president, Nayib Bukele, refused to meet with him. Bukele, who enjoys very high popularity at home, has had chilly relations with the Biden administration and other Democrats:

  • In early February, he paid an impromptu visit to Washington seeking to meet members of the new administration, who refused to see him.
  • On his busy Twitter account, Bukele has objected to El Salvador being lumped in with its neighbors as a “Northern Triangle” country, arguing that its citizens migrate far less than do Guatemalans and Hondurans. While this is true, 1,570 fleeing Salvadoran children—51 per day—did show up unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border in March.
  • Bukele got in an ugly April 1 Twitter argument with Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the co-chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Central America Caucus. Torres told him the migration crisis was “a result of narcissistic dictators like you interested in being ‘cool’ while people flee by the 1000s & die by the 100s.”
  • Two of his aides told the Associated Press that “Bukele was angered by State Department spokesman Ned Price’s comments Monday [April 5] that the U.S. looks forward to Bukele restoring a ‘strong separation of powers where they’ve been eroded and demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.’”

Bukele does, however, place a premium on El Salvador’s relations with the United States. Among several contracts with Washington lobby firms is a new one with the law firm Arnold and Porter, signed on March 25: $1.2 million for the services of Tom Shannon, a former ambassador to Brazil and undersecretary of state for political affairs. “President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement sent to AP.

In the end, Zúñiga and Tobin met with El Salvador’s foreign minister, its attorney general (who is a critic of Bukele), and private sector and NGO leaders.

Honduras was not on the U.S. delegation’s agenda. On March 30 a U.S. court handed down a life sentence for narcotrafficking to Tony Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was named frequently as a co-conspirator in the prosecution’s case. Evidence presented in court pointed to the depth of corruption at the highest levels of power in Honduras. So while the U.S. envoy skipped Honduras during his first official tour of the Northern Triangle,  the Hernández government’s foreign minister said that she had a “very fruitful” online conversation with Zúñiga during the week of March 24 and that Honduras’s dialogues with the Biden administration, which “started on February 4,” are “more advanced” than its neighbors’.

The Biden administration faces a conundrum of how to assist countries led by corrupt officials, or what National Security Council Latin America Director Juan González calls “predatory elites.” At his March 25 press conference, President Biden said the U.S government would seek to go around the elites where possible and assist communities directly, arguing that he pursued that approach when he was vice president: “What I was able to do is not give money to the head of state, because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say, ‘Okay, you need lighting in the streets to change things? I’ll put the lighting in.’”

This week we saw signs that the administration’s approach may have a shorter-term, faster-moving component. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the Northern Triangle countries “to respond to urgent humanitarian needs.” A USAID release notes that the agency “has provided approximately $112 million in life-saving humanitarian aid—including emergency food assistance, nutrition services, safe drinking water, shelter, programs to help people earn an income, and disaster risk reduction programs. Of this, $57 million is for people in Guatemala, $47 million in Honduras, and $8 million in El Salvador.”

While much past “root cause” discussions of Central America focused on gang violence and insecurity, the issue of the moment is hunger and severe malnutrition. The pandemic economic depression, two hurricanes in two November 2020 weeks, and a five-year climate change-caused drought, exacerbated by feckless government responses, have brought hunger to emergency levels.

“Guatemala now has the sixth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. The number of acute cases in children, according to one new Guatemalan government study, doubled between 2019 and 2020,” the Washington Post reported. “In Indigenous communities in the country’s western highlands, where a disproportionate number of people are leaving, the chronic child malnutrition rate hovers around 70 percent, higher than any country in the world.” A World Food Program “March to July 2021 Outlook” report finds 570,000 Hondurans, 428,000 Guatemalans, and 121,000 Salvadorans facing “emergency” or “phase 4” food insecurity. The only level higher is “phase 5,” which it calls “catastrophe,” or famine.

Some border wall construction could restart

Sources at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the conservative Washington Times of a conversation in which Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas indicated the Biden administration might allow construction to fill “gaps” in the Trump administration’s border wall.

As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged that “not another foot” of border wall would be built under his administration. On January 20, he issued a proclamation freezing wall construction for sixty days. That period has passed, and wall construction contractors remain on hold but poised to continue work.

In his conversation with ICE employees, the Washington Times reported, Mayorkas told them that CBP—which manages border fencing—has submitted a plan explaining how it would wish to move forward. “It’s not a single answer to a single question. There are different projects that the chief of the Border Patrol has presented and the acting commissioner of CBP presented to me.”

The Secretary added that there is “room to make decisions as the administration, as part of the administration, in particular areas of the wall that need renovation, particular projects that need to be finished. These could include ‘gaps,’ ‘gates,’ and areas ‘where the wall has been completed but the technology has not been implemented.’”

At a March 17 House committee hearing, Mayorkas had struck a firmer tone. Asked, “Are you going to be asking the president to finish the wall, and the wall that has already been appropriated by Congress,” the Secretary replied, “No, I will not.”

The abrupt January 20 freeze in wall construction has left gaps where the barrier is unbuilt. Environmental groups, community groups, property holders, and Indigenous communities argue that there should be even more gaps, taking down segments of what was already built. This would mitigate environmental damage in fragile ecosystems, reopen wildlife migratory corridors, and protect ancestral and sacred sites. A coalition of 75 organizations (including WOLA) produced a document in February listing priority areas where existing border wall needs to be taken down.

Links

  • Protection-seeking migrants aren’t just coming to the United States. In March Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, broke its record for most asylum requests in a month, with 9,076. With 22,606 requests in the first quarter of 2021, COMAR is on pace to exceed 90,000 requests this year,  breaking its single-year record of 70,440 requests, set in 2019. As recently as 2015, COMAR was getting only 3,400 requests. More than half of this year’s applicants are Hondurans, followed by Cubans, Haitians, Salvadorans, Venezuelans, and Guatemalans. “We don’t know if it’s their first or their second intention” to remain in Mexico, COMAR director Andrés Ramírez told the New York Times. “What we can tell you is that more and more people are coming to us.”
  • The Department of Homeland Security is examining 5,600 cases of migrant children with the expectation that it will find “a small number of additional [family] separations on top of thousands that have already been reported,” according to Reuters. “There is also a lot of misinformation in the files—wrong dates, confusion in names, doubled up cases,” an official said.
  • Mexico’s immigration authority (the National Migration Institute or INM) has classified for five years its files on the January 22 massacre of 16 Guatemalan migrants, allegedly committed by state police agents, in Camargo, Tamaulipas. Curiously, at the crime scene was a vehicle that the INM (which has gone through numerous corruption scandals and allegations) had seized in a counter-migration operation a few months earlier. Eight INM agents were fired, but now details will not be public until 2026.
  • A March 26-29 AP/NORC poll of 1,166 U.S. adults gave Joe Biden a 61 percent overall approval rating, but only a 42 percent approval rating on immigration and 44 percent on border security. Independent voters disapproved of Biden’s performance on immigration by a 37 percentage-point margin (67 percent to 30 percent). 40 percent disapprove of Biden’s handling of unaccompanied children, and 24 percent approve. The New York Times cites a recent Gallup poll in which immigration tied for third place among issues that respondents viewed as the country’s most pressing problem. It was first place for those who identified as Republicans.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas paid a low-profile visit to El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley this week, speaking with border security personnel and community organizations.
  • Asked by Politico what she would like her colleagues to understand about the border, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, replied, “Number one, migration doesn’t stop. Number two, deterrence doesn’t work. And number three, the status quo hasn’t addressed anything.” Escobar, a recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award, also gave an interview to the Intercept in which, among many proposals, she called for the imprisonment of former Trump advisor Stephen Miller.

Colombia peace update: April 4, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Fighting continues between Venezuelan military and 10th Front dissident group

Nearly two weeks since Venezuelan security forces attacked a FARC dissident group in Apure, along the border with Colombia, unusually intense combat continues, displacing large numbers of civilians.

On March 21, Venezuelan armed forces carried out bombings and land raids on six sites used by the 10th Front, an ex-FARC group. The New York Times called it “several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades.” Venezuelan forces also carried out house-to-house raids in border towns like La Victoria and El Ripial, terrorizing the population.

The 10th Front, made up of a few former FARC guerrillas and many new recruits, is affiliated with the 1st Front headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” Colombia’s largest network of ex-FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilize. It is one of three Colombian armed groups active inside Venezuela in this part of the border zone. Venezuela’s military operations have not affected the other two: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and a second dissident group, the “Nueva Marquetalia,” which is led by Iván Márquez, who had headed the FARC’s negotiating team during 2012-16 peace talks.

The 10th Front has retaliated repeatedly. It has attacked a local office of Venezuela’s taxation agency, knocked out electrical power, attacked Army road checkpoints, and destroyed a Russian-made armored personnel carrier with either a rocket-propelled grenade or an improvised explosive device. “That civilian and military facilities are being damaged is something we had not seen to date,” Fr. Eduardo Soto, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela, told Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

Estimates of the combat’s toll are high. Venezuelan officials cite nine dead, including four soldiers, along with 32 arrests and nine guerrilla dissident camps destroyed. The 10th Front denies that any of its fighters have been captured or killed.

Venezuelan human rights group statements, and press interviews with refugees who have crossed the river into Colombia’s also-conflictive department of Arauca, reveal many testimonies of Venezuelan soldiers and members of the notorious Police Special Actions Forces (FAES) unit raiding homes, looting possessions, dragging people into the street and beating them, forcing people to hold weapons while photographing them, detaining people and holding them incommunicado, and massacring a family in El Ripial, presenting the dead as combatants. The guerrilla dissidents, meanwhile, are accused of widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines and explosives.

On March 31 Venezuelan forces detained two reporters with the NTN24 news network, along with two members of the FundaRedes human rights group. They were released after 24 hours, without their cameras, mobile phones, or other equipment. A statement from Venezuela’s Defense Ministry mentioned “media scoundrels that deploy their dirty manipulations to fuel violence” in the region. “The role that NGOs are playing in this operation is striking,” it added.

As of March 31, Colombia’s migration agency had counted 4,741 people displaced by the fighting, who had taken refuge in 19 shelters in Arauquita, Colombia. That represents more than 10 percent of Arauquita municipality’s estimated population of 44,000. About 40 percent are children. At least several hundred of the displaced have Colombian citizenship but had settled on the Venezuelan side of the border. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is in Arauquita helping with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks. An unknown number of people have also displaced to other parts of Venezuela.

It is not clear why Venezuela has chosen to confront the 10th Front to the exclusion of other Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory, or why it has done so now. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, claims that Nicolás Maduro’s regime “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business” and that it “orders that one narco-criminal group be combated selectively.” Most educated guesses do point to a corrupt relationship between Venezuelan security forces and organized crime.

Caracas may have decided to favor the “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group, or perhaps, the Washington Post posits, “the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.”

An unnamed expert cited in El Espectador had a lengthy hypothesis:

An expert consulted by this newspaper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that drug trafficking in the area involves “paying extortion, or a bribe, to public entities, particularly to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). According to the expert, since 2019, both the dissidents of the Segunda Marquetalia, as well as those of Gentil Duarte, began to default on payments. “That undoubtedly generated a series of tensions with the FANB that escalated.”

…The expert added that the 10th Front began to increase the volume of drug trafficking passing through the route. “Then more members of the FANB began to charge and raise the rates. That’s when ‘Ferley’ appeared, he is the finance chief of the 10th Front and he began to have disputes with people in the FANB,” this person added.

The same article cited Sebastiana Barráez, a Venezuelan journalist, contending that “the sympathies that have been expressed, even by Nicolás Maduro himself, have been towards Iván Márquez, not towards Gentil Duarte.” Still, the Segunda Marquetalia presence in the region is less notable. “They have a strange presence because it is not so clear to identify who their combatants are, at least in Arauca and Apure,” researcher Naryi Vargas told El Espectador.

At the moment it is impossible to predict whether the violence will die down or escalate. The dissidents are showing a much greater willingness to keep attacking the Venezuelan forces than they do in Colombia, where attacks on military targets are usually followed by lengthy retreats.

The dissidents are reportedly calling for negotiations that might lead to a truce with the Venezuelan regime. Over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan organizations sent a March 31 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres asking him to name a special envoy to mediate, since the Colombian government and the regime in Venezuela have almost no remaining contacts with each other.

The two governments continue to ramp up bellicose rhetoric. While Colombia’s defense minister alleges Caracas is colluding with the Nueva Marquetalia, Venezuela’s defense minister insists that the Colombian armed groups “cross the river, make their skirmishes and return to Colombia with the protection of their authorities.” A Venezuelan Defense Ministry communiqué even sought to bring the United States into the picture:

They [the armed groups] are sponsored by the Colombian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is why their incursions into the Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque, since he provides them with logistical and financial support, creating a criminal corridor on the border with the advice of the U.S. Southern Command.”

Though the probability of escalation into inter-state conflict remains low, it can’t be discarded. “This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” an unnamed human rights worker told the Guardian. The paper went on: “The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. ‘I would say it is making it worse.’”

Car bombing raises concern about Cauca’s deteriorating security situation

The department of Cauca, in southwest Colombia, remains one of the most conflictive parts of the country. On March 26, a car bomb detonated in the center of Corinto, in the northern part of the department not far from Cali. Last week also saw the murder of a judicial police investigator near Corinto, and the forced displacement of 2,000 people in Argelia, in the department’s south.

The car bomb went off next to the mayor’s office in Corinto, wounding 43 people including 11 municipal employees. President Iván Duque said that a FARC dissident group powerful in the area, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, was responsible. The Dagoberto Ramos, like the 10th Front in Arauca and Venezuela, is believed to be part of the dissident network headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the 1st Front. Led by a former mid-level FARC leader named Johany Noscué alias “Mayimbú,” the unit has carried out some bloody high-profile attacks, including the 2019 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality. The dissidents and the armed forces had been fighting in a nearby village in the days leading up to the bombing.

The Dagoberto Ramos unit is also believed responsible for the March 27 kidnapping and murder of Mario Fernando Herrera, an investigator with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Herrera was taken on March 26 at a roadblock that the dissidents had set up on the road between Corinto and the northern Cauca municipality of Santander de Quilichao. HIs body was found the next day.

Further south in Argelia, fighting remains intense between the ELN and another dissident group purportedly aligned with “Gentil Duarte,” the Carlos Patiño front. (To make things more complicated, this region also has a dissident group aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia, and the two have poor relations: Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses observed last year that Argelia may be the only zone where units of the two dissident networks are fighting each other.) ELN-dissident firefights have left residences riddled with bullets and shrapnel in the middle of the town of El Plateado, Argelia. Starting on March 27, 2,000 residents fled “at great speed.” Most headed for the county seat of Argelia, where many are gathered in the main church and the soccer arena.

Cauca has only about 1.35 million people, but has always been over-represented in measures of violence. It is strategically located for narcotrafficking, with coca fields, laboratories, and routes leading to Pacific transshipment points. Northern Cauca is also a center of Colombia’s illicit marijuana trade, with grow lights dotting the region’s hillsides at night. Illicit mining is common, especially near the Pacific. It is one of Colombia’s most ethnically diverse departments, but indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have historically been poor and excluded from political power, which has concentrated in the hands of a European-descended elite. Its topography is complex: Colombia’s three Andean mountain chains all converge there in what’s called the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif).

Cauca leads the country in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since 2016. So far in 2021, the department has suffered four massacres. The homicide rate in 2020 was 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than all but four or five U.S. cities. The ELN, three dissident units, a fragment of the EPL, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group all operate in Cauca, as do smaller regional organized crime groups.

Argelia social leader Walter Aldana described the situation to El Espectador:

What we have today in the department of Cauca is the presence of eight or ten illegal armed groups that exercise power and dominion in the territories. They fight among themselves for territorial control. But whoever is there at the time is the authority in the territory. For more than a year, since before the pandemic, we have had a curfew from 7 o’clock at night—depending on the armed group and how they want to handle things.

In response to all this, “the government has recurred to old formulas,” wrote Santiago Torrado at Spain’s El País, “such as holding a security council meeting, announcing the deployment of 2,000 uniformed personnel in addition to the 8,000 already in the department, and offering rewards for the ringleaders.”

“The improvisation, the lack of planning, the lack of systematic persecution of crime is very evident,” wrote Alfonso Luna Geller, of the group Proclama del Cauca, at El Espectador. “The military and police are always surprised. It seems that there is no military or police intelligence, no strategic or tactical operations, because they have been replaced by useless security councils. … The National Government only appears to make bombastic and opportunistic declarations on the smoking streets of our towns.”

“The only way to transform these conditions is with transformations driven by the State as a whole,” former human rights ombudsman Carlos Negret told Torrado. “With long-term policies and not with circumstantial projects; with sustainable and durable decisions, and not with fire extinguishers that sooner rather than later use up their loads. I believe that implementation of the peace agreement has many of these elements”.

Links

  • 25 U.S. and Colombian organizations sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to cease funding for aerial herbicide fumigation in territories where farmers grow coca, before Colombia’s government re-starts the suspended program.
  • From Vorágine and Connectas, a new accusation that the government’s coca eradication statistics are artificially inflated: eradicators “arrived at the coca fields to negotiate with the landowner. This was a ‘pact’ in which the eradicators only completed half of their task or did it badly on purpose: they did not uproot the bush from its roots, but only stripped it halfway down its stem.”
  • Mutante, Baudó AP, and La Liga Contra el Silencio published an investigation alleging that nine farmers were killed in the context of coca eradication operations in 2020. The total death toll for coca eradication in 2020, then, was 25, since the Defense Ministry reported 16 eradicators or security-force escorts killed last year.
  • The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy published a “Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One,” which places emphasis on access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and “a collective and comprehensive response” to supply reduction in Latin America. It does not specifically mention forced eradication of illicit crops.
  • The State Department’s annual human rights report draws attention to some of the more notable abuses that took place in 2020, while noting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo that the JEP’s estimate of 6,402 victims of military “false positive” killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 “is a figure that seeks to create a negative image of our Armed Forces and extort the real debate, the one we need so that this country can have forces with greater legitimacy.”
  • An InsightCrime investigation into armed groups’ recruitment of children finds “the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca [Antioquia] and the Amazon state of Vaupés.”
  • It has been a year since Salvatore Mancuso, once a top leader of Colombia’s national AUC paramilitary network, completed a criminal sentence for narcotrafficking in the United States. He remains in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, seeking to prevent his deportation to Colombia, either by staying in the United States under the Convention Against Torture, or being removed to Italy, as he is a dual citizen. By video, Mancuso has been sharing information with the JEP and the Truth Commission. He is revealing names of military officers and civilian third parties who aided and abetted the right-wing groups that, at the conflict’s peak in the late 90s and early 00s, committed the majority of killings and forced displacements.
  • Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, a longtime personal friend of President Iván Duque, drew criticism this week for indicting one of the opposition-party candidates with highest poll numbers ahead of March 2022 presidential elections, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. The Fiscalía is accusing Fajardo of a 2013 case of contracting irregularities: approving a loan to the Antioquia government that was denominated in dollars, without first performing a risk study.
  • Fiscal General Barbosa paid a visit to the United States this week, where he met with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Marshals representatives, among others. Barbosa’s delegation included Gabriel Jaimes, the prosecutor in the super-high-profile witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe. Jaimes has asked to drop the charges in Uribe’s case, and will present arguments before a judge on April 6. Investigative journalist Daniel Coronell points out that the majority of witnesses on Uribe’s behalf in this case have some relationship with the Oficina de Envigado, an organized crime structure descended from the old Medellín cartel.
  • Without Catholic Church-led organizing and a 1993 law recognizing Afro-descendant communities’ collective landholdings, the jungles of Chocó “could have been destroyed by the logging interests of the time,” says Quibdó Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto in an interesting interview with La Silla Vacía. “If it weren’t for that work, we would have this forest full of monocultures and agribusiness.”
  • The Colombian government appears determined to move ahead with a US$4.5 billion purchase of 24 F-16 fighter jets. This is controversial because the contract, equivalent to more than 1 percent of GDP, comes at a time when resources are lacking for other priorities, like peace accord implementation.

Weekly Border Update: April 2, 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. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.

Migrant apprehensions may reach largest annual total since early 2000s, as most are expelled

The Washington Post published preliminary data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border during March. It shows migrants came into the agency’s custody, at least briefly, on 171,000 occasions last month. That would be the largest monthly total since March of 2001, and a remarkable 76 percent more than February 2021. Here is how it would compare among the previous 115 months:

Of this “preliminary” figure of 171,000:

  • 99,200 appear to be single adults, a 44 percent increase over February and the largest number of single adults encountered in the monthly data WOLA has collected, which go back to October 2011.
  • 18,800 were unaccompanied children, a 102 percent increase over February, smashing the May 2019 record of 11,861.
  • 53,000 were members of family units, a 180 percent increase over February and the fourth or fifth largest monthly total since October 2011.

Under the Trump-era “Title 42” pandemic restrictions that the Biden administration has kept in place, about 90 percent of adults and 10-20 percent of family members are being expelled, usually in a matter of hours. So the population of migrants taken into U.S. custody at the border looks more modest, perhaps similar to 2019:

CNN reported seeing Border Patrol estimates predicting that the agency might apprehend or “encounter” 2 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2020 and September 2021. That number—up to 1.1 million single adults, 828,000 family members, and 200,000 unaccompanied children—would shatter Border Patrol’s annual record of 1,643,679 migrant apprehensions set in 2000.

That estimate seems dubious. Even with 171,000 migrants apprehended in March, getting to 2 million would require Border Patrol to encounter a record-shattering 241,000 migrants for each of the next six months—about 20,000 more than the largest monthly total ever measured. Deputy Chief Raúl Ortiz said on March 30 that Border Patrol expects to encounter “more than a million” migrants in fiscal 2021. That appears more likely, and would be the largest annual total since 2006, exceeding the 851,508 apprehensions reported in 2019.

Unlike past years, a large portion of these migrants—one half to two-thirds, perhaps—would be instantly expelled under Title 42. And much of the total would be “double-counting” as expelled migrants try to cross again. In February, about 25 percent of people encountered at the border had crossed more than once, CNN reports, up from 7 percent in 2019.

While not on pace for a record-breaking year, Mexico reported apprehending 34,993 migrants in its territory between January 1 and March 25, 7,643 or 28 percent more than the same period in 2020. About 55 percent were from Honduras, 29 percent from Guatemala, and 7 percent from El Salvador. Of all migrants, said National Migration Institute (INM) director Francisco Garduño, 4,400 were minors, about 1,200 of them unaccompanied. Mexico’s totals so far this year “roughly mirror the numbers from early 2019, before Trump forced Mexico” to increase apprehensions by threatening to levy tariffs, the Associated Press observed.

Unaccompanied children: flattening out or even declining?

Much media coverage of the border continues to focus on U.S. agencies’ struggle to accommodate the record numbers of children arriving unaccompanied, whom the Biden administration refuses to expel under Title 42. As of March 31, 18,170 children were in U.S. government custody: 13,204 in permanent and emergency shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS), and 4,966 awaiting ORR shelter space while stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate detention facilities.

The most recent numbers we’ve managed to obtain do show a glimmer of good news, though, about unaccompanied children. The population in CBP’s custody has dropped under 5,000, from 5,495 on March 25, as new temporary ORR shelter spaces have opened up. And the number of non-Mexican unaccompanied kids Border Patrol is newly apprehending may be dropping. The agency took in more than 600 per day on each of the three days for which we saw data during the week of March 22, but between March 28 and March 31 it took in less than 500 on three of four days, and never reached 600. Though it’s early to be certain about trends, this points to a downward trendline:

The Washington Post, as noted, just reported a preliminary figure of 18,800 unaccompanied children taken into CBP custody in all of March—including Mexican children, who under current law are almost all returned to Mexico. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government expects to encounter between 18,600 and 22,000 children in April, and between 21,800 and 25,000 in May.

If the lower total since March 28 is sustained, though, unaccompanied child apprehensions will be on the low end, or even below, these estimates. One reason the number of kids arriving alone might decline is the increased probability, discussed below, that a family unit won’t be expelled under Title 42. If there is some likelihood of being released into the interior to pursue asylum, parents will be more inclined to accompany their children, resulting in fewer kids traveling alone.

In fact, Reuters revealed, a surprising number of “unaccompanied” children may have arrived with a family member—but because the adult relative was not a parent or guardian, Border Patrol separated the family. A data project managed by “a handful of nonprofit groups” estimates that as many as 10 to 17 percent of “unaccompanied” children actually arrived with an aunt or uncle, an adult sibling, cousin, grandparent, or other relative. Because they are not immediate family, CBP policy usually considers the child unaccompanied and expels the adult under Title 42. This very high estimate—between one in six and one in ten children separated from a relative at the border—has “not been made public before” and CBP “told Reuters they do not track such separations.”

In the meantime, the large population of unaccompanied kids continues to strain ORR and CBP capacities. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that CBP is “working around the clock” to move kids out of Border Patrol facilities and into ORR custody as space opens up. This space, as Mark Greenberg notes in a new Migration Policy Institute study, started out very scarce: “The Biden administration took office with less than half of the shelter capacity that ORR had estimated was needed for preparedness.”

Children are not meant to spend a long time in ORR’s shelter network: ideally, no more than about a month. The agency works to identify relatives or other sponsors who can take them while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. ORR has been moving between 200 and 300 children per day out of its system and into relatives’ custody, far fewer than the number of children being newly apprehended and transferred. This points to continued increases in the need for shelter space.

Internal government estimates reported by CNN and the New York Times indicate that ORR could need 34,100 or 35,500 shelter beds to keep up with the high projected number of arriving unaccompanied children. As last week’s update found, a series of emergency shelters—from convention centers to military bases—is increasing ORR’s capacity up to about 28,800 beds. And the New York Times reports that new facilities being “scouted” include “a Crowne Plaza hotel in Dallas, a convention center in Orange County, Fla., and a church hall in Houston.”

This new shelter capacity should alleviate the crowding in CBP facilities’ holding areas, where the law requires children to spend less than 72 hours. Transfers out of CBP custody have increased from about 400 per day the week of March 22 to about 800 per day the week of March 29.

On March 30 CBP allowed selected pool reporters to visit the largest of its holding areas, the temporary processing center in Donna, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. This site is a complex of tents built in January while a more permanent facility in McAllen, outfitted in 2014, undergoes renovation. The press visitors to Donna found 3,400 unaccompanied children and 700 family members crammed into a space intended for 250. Most children are in eight “pods” separated by plastic dividers, while the youngest are in a “play pen” area where they sleep on mats on the floor. More than 2,000 kids had been in the facility for more than the maximum 72 hours, 39 of them for more than 15 days. Oscar Escamilla, the acting executive officer of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, told reporters that “250 to 300 kids enter daily and far fewer leave”—a situation that should begin to reverse as temporary ORR shelters come online.

“I’m a Border Patrol agent. I didn’t sign up for this,” the New York Times quoted Mr. Escamilla saying “as he looked at some of the younger children, many of them under 12.” However, as veteran immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson observed in The Atlantic, even after seven years of child arrivals, CBP has resisted building more family-appropriate holding facilities out of the unproven belief that, as a commissioner told her, “such a project could send a message that would encourage even more people to migrate to the United States.”

The border saw some tragic and outrageous episodes involving children this week. Border Patrol found a mother, her 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son unconscious on an island in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The mother and son were resuscitated, but the girl died. In remote New Mexico desert, Border Patrol night-vision video meanwhile captured smugglers dropping two Ecuadorian girls, age 3 and 5, from atop a 14 foot tall section of border fence. CBP found the girls and “they are said to be in good health,” Al Jazeera reported.

Families: increasing

The category of migrant that appears to have increased fastest in March was family members. Border Patrol reported a 180 percent increase in encounters with families—parents or legal guardians with children—from 18,945 in February to 53,000 last month. The Washington Post noted that DHS officials “are privately warning about what they see as the next phase of a migration surge that could be the largest in two decades, driven by a much greater number of families.”

The Post noted that groups of asylum-seeking families “sometimes collectively numbering as many as 400” have been “showing up this month along the riverbanks in South Texas.” El Faro published a series of photos showing what these nighttime arrivals look like, as Border Patrol has set up card tables on a dirt road in Roma, Texas, at which they check in new arrivals.

What won’t be clear until we see CBP’s detailed March data is how many of these families were allowed into the U.S. interior to begin removal and asylum proceedings, and how many were expelled under Title 42. Under the pandemic expulsions policy, Mexico agreed in March 2020 to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apprehended at the border. It is still taking back nearly all single adults, who are the majority of all apprehended migrants. But even as it takes a larger number of expelled families than it did in 2020, Mexico appears to have hit a ceiling and is now refusing about 80 to 90 percent of family expulsions, especially of those with small children, according to the Washington Post. (That article’s co-author, Nick Miroff, notifies us that the percentage more recently appears to have fallen to 75 to 80 percent—perhaps due to U.S. requests that Mexico take more expelled families.)

In order to get around this, DHS has been flying some families from segments of the border where Mexico is refusing expulsions to segments where Mexico is still accepting them. Planes continue to arrive daily to El Paso, where El Paso Matters has documented the anguish of parents with small children taken from the airport to the middle of the border bridge and left in Ciudad Juárez.

Garduño, the director of Mexico’s INM, told press that smugglers are advising would-be migrants to bring children. They “suggest that migrant parents travel with their children ‘to facilitate entry into Mexico and the United States.’”

Families often get to remain in the U.S. interior for a long time as badly backlogged U.S. immigration courts consider their requests for asylum or other protection. “On average, it takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim,” Jonathan Blitzer reported in The New Yorker. The Biden administration, NPR, reported, is considering a plan—devised with heavy input from the Migration Policy Institute—that would seek to speed the process by empowering asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to decide more cases of people apprehended at the border. They already do this with asylum seekers who apply elsewhere in the United States. (We discuss this in an April 1 WOLA Podcast with asylum expert Yael Shacher of Refugees International.)

Mexican Army kills Guatemalan citizen amid southern border crackdown

Mexico has responded to the Biden administration’s appeals to reduce migration flows by deploying more military, security, and migration personnel to its border with Guatemala. On March 27 a large number of soldiers, marines, national guardsmen, local police, and INM agents—3,000 people by one estimateparaded through Tapachula, the largest city near Mexico’s southern border, then arrayed themselves along frequently used border crossings. On the Guatemalan side, in the border town of Tecún Umán, security forces increased their presence as well; officials from both sides held a protocolary photo-op in the middle of the border bridge over the Suchiate River.

Mexico’s Army is part of the deployment, making migration control one of many internal non-defense roles that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has encouraged the military to take on more fully. One army unit carrying out these duties, the 15th Motorized Cavalry Regiment, was involved in a tragic incident along the border on March 29.

Soldiers shot and killed a 31-year-old Guatemalan citizen, Elvin Mazariegos, a passenger in a truck near a usually unmonitored land border crossing in Mazapa de Madero, near Motozintla, Chiapas in the mountains north of Tapachula. When the truck, en route back into Guatemala, shifted into reverse upon seeing a group of Mexican Army soldiers, one fired at the vehicle in an incident that Mexico’s Defense Secretary called “an erroneous reaction.”

Like about 10 percent of residents of a zone where Mexico and Guatemala blur together and many road crossings lack customs or INM presence, Mazariegos, a resident of the Guatemalan town across the border, worked transporting products to and from retail stores on both sides. On March 29 he had gone with co-workers “to drop off money at bodegas where he worked.” Like most, he did not have an official border crossing card.

In areas like Mazapa de Madero, Mexico’s Animal Político notes, encounters with government forces often mean dealing with corruption. “An ‘assist’ to the authority in exchange for not having a rigorous inspection. According to his sister, the victim had already suffered on occasion from having to pay these bribes.”

That may explain why the vehicle in which Mazariegos was traveling appeared to seek to flee the scene. One of the combat-trained soldiers responded by firing several shots at the vehicle, despite the lack of any provocation or danger—a textbook example of why civil-military experts frequently warn about misusing armed forces for internal duties like migration control.

Hundreds of angry townspeople took the soldiers into custody—which sometimes occurs in Indigenous communities—and brought them to the Guatemalan side, where they stayed until the community received some assurances that the responsible soldier would be brought to justice and the family would receive some recompense.

Mexico’s Defense and Foreign Relations secretaries said the responsible soldier is “at the disposal” of the civilian criminal justice system. The Army told Mazariegos’s wife that it would pay the Guatemalan’s funeral expenses and reportedly offered a payout of 1 million Mexican pesos (US$50,000), which his family says is not enough to support the deceased man’s three young children.

Though not part of its ongoing southern border migration crackdown, Mexico was shaken this week by another official killing of a Central American migrant. Four police officers killed Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a Salvadoran mother of two daughters, who worked as a hotel chambermaid in the beach resort of Tulum. In a scene reminiscent of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a female police officer knelt on Salazar’s neck, breaking her spinal column and killing her, while onlookers recorded the incident and entreated the police to stop.

Salazar, 36, fled Sonsonate, El Salvador in 2016, and sought asylum in Mexico’s system, citing “gender violence.” Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR granted her asylum in 2017, and she had worked and raised her daughters in Tulum since then.

On March 27, a convenience store video showed Salazar appearing agitated, as though in the throes of a panic attack. After she left the store, police came and subdued her, inexplicably using extreme brutality and killing her. The attorney general of Quintana Roo, the state that incorporates Tulum, said that the four police officers are in custody and will be charged with “femicide.” President López Obrador lamented the crime: “She was brutally treated and murdered … It is an event that fills us with pain and shame.” In a stream of tweets about the incident, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele called on Mexico to hold the police officers accountable.

Articles this week in the Mexican publications SinEmbargo and Chiapas Paralelo provided updates on the miserable conditions faced by Central American and other migrants in the INM’s detention centers. In Chiapas and elsewhere near Mexico’s southern border, these detention centers are near capacity right now as migrant flows rise and the government’s crackdown intensifies.

Using partially available INM data, SinEmbargo counts the deaths of at least 20 migrants in INM detention in 2013 and between 2015 and 2019 (2014 and 2020 data are unavailable). Causes range from cardiac arrests and infections to “falling from bunk beds.” Brenda Ochoa of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told the publication that migrants in INM detention receive “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, ranging from pressure to sign their deportation papers to physical and psychological abuse, particularly of women.”

Guatemala prepares another caravan response

Amid word on social media that Hondurans were planning to form a northbound migrant caravan on March 30, representatives of the Guatemalan, Honduran, and U.S. governments held a virtual “high-level working meeting” to coordinate their response.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a “state of prevention” for five of the country’s twenty-two departments, restricting freedom of movement, assembly, and public protest in order to ease the security forces’ efforts to block or disperse any migrants traveling in a caravan. While it is normally legal for residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to travel in each others’ territories without a passport, Giammattei based his order on COVID-19 precautions.

A statement from Amnesty International, the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI), and the El Salvador Independent Monitoring Group warned Guatemala “that imposing measures that could incite the excessive use of force against migrants and applicants for international protection is inexcusable.” The statement recalled Guatemala’s January 16 dispersal of an attempted Honduran caravan near the countries’ common border, in which “soldiers severely repressed people who tried to move forward.”

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration’s point person for outreach to Mexico and Central America on migration issues, spoke by phone with President Giammattei on March 30. “They discussed the significant risks to those leaving their homes and making the dangerous journey to the United States, especially during a global pandemic,” along with priorities for economic assistance, according to a White House readout of the call. Even as the Guatemalan president decreed a state of emergency, the official record notes, Harris “thanked President Giammattei for his efforts to secure Guatemala’s southern border.”

In the end, by April 1 Guatemalan forces had quickly dispersed a small caravan whose members crossed the border.

As the Biden administration develops a U.S. assistance response to Central America, Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Latin America director during Barack Obama’s first term, argued in The Hill that some forms of U.S. aid to the region—while not solving migration’s “root causes”—could show results more quickly than most might expect. These include “immediate disaster relief, cash-for-work programs, COVID-19 vaccines, alternatives to irregular migration, and a clear break with predatory elites.” On that latter point, Restrepo suggests publicly indicting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was repeatedly named as a co-conspirator in narcotrafficking, in a U.S. trial that concluded this week with the president’s brother being sentenced to life in prison.

Speaking with NPR, Juan González, who holds Restrepo’s old position in Joe Biden’s NSC, repeated the phrase “predatory elite” to describe Central America’s corrupt political class. “You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs,” González said. “Migration is essentially a social release valve for migrants.”

Links

  • WOLA’s latest audio podcast discusses the border situation and how the asylum system should work, with guest Yael Schacher of Refugees International.
  • Though the Biden administration’s 60-day pause in border wall-building has expired, it remains in place pending an eventual announcement of a plan. However, eminent domain cases in Texas courts have not been closed, and the government continues seeking to seize private property along the border for wall construction.
  • NBC News, USA Today, and the Guardian covered Democratic and Republican legislators’ separate “dueling” border visits, to different parts of Texas, over the March 26-28 weekend.
  • Reuters’ interviews with migrants and smugglers, and reviews of closed Facebook groups, indicate how “coyotes” are feeding migrants many false messages about the Biden administration’s policies toward migrants at the border.
  • Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic and Julia G. Young at Time make the point that the history of U.S. foreign policy in Central America is a key “root cause” underlying migration from the region.
  • House Homeland Security Committee ranking member John Katko (R-New York) and border district Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced legislation creating a $1 billion contingency fund, from which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could draw to attend to migrants at moments when they arrive at the border in large numbers.
  • “Predicting a problem is not the same thing as having the right tools at your disposal,” writes Cecilia Muñoz, who headed the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, in The Atlantic. Muñoz voices exasperation with “immigration advocates who project confidence that 100 percent of migrant families are fleeing danger and deserve asylum,” adding that “most are unable or unwilling to name any category of migrant who should ever be returned.”
  • “The bottom line is that through expulsions and deportations, the United States is returning migrants and asylum seekers to situations of instability and danger amidst a pandemic, and this must be stopped,” reads an explainer document from the Latin America Working Group.
  • “Immigrants are not coming to the U.S. because they are attracted by President Joe Biden’s inclusive language, and they were not repelled by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist imagery,” argues Greg Weeks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. At Mother Jones, several immigration experts voice doubts about whether Biden administration messaging makes much difference for would-be migrants’ decision making.
  • “One of the reasons why Mexican migration [to the U.S.] went down so much after 2007 is that there are about 260,000 people every year who come from Mexico to work legally in the U.S. and go back home,” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute tells Politico in a wide-ranging interview. “In 2019, the comparable number [for Central Americans] was 8,000; last year, it was about 5,500. There really is no line for a Central American to get into.”

25 Organizations Call for an End to U.S. Support for Aerial Herbicide Fumigation in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org)

(Leer en español)

Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.

March 26, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Biden,

We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated.  It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.

Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.

Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.

Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.

Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.

They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste. 

These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:

  • Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
  • Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
  • After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
  • Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
  • Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
  • Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
  • Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.

In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.

This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.

Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do. 

Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.

This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.

It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.

Sincerely,

  • Amazon Watch
  • Center for International Environmental Law
  • Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
  • Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
  • Colombia Human Rights Committee
  • Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
  • Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
  • Drug Policy Alliance
  • Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
  • Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
  • Healing Bridges
  • ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
  • Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
  • Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
  • Latin America Working Group
  • Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
  • Missionary Oblates
  • Oxfam America
  • Oxfam Colombia
  • Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
  • Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
  • United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
  • Washington Office on Latin America
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents

On March 22, residents of Arauquita, across the Arauca river from Venezuela, “woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation” on the other side of the border, the northeast Colombian municipality’s mayor told the Associated Press. In La Victoria, in Venezuela’s state of Apure, armed forces were carrying out an intense ground and air offensive against Colombian guerrilla dissidents, firing from helicopters and dropping bombs from aircraft.

Combat began on the 21st, according to a statement from the Venezuelan armed forces. That day, two Venezuelan officers taking part in border-wide military maneuvers called “Bolivarian Shield”—a major and a first lieutenant—were killed, apparently by landmines, a rarity in Venezuela. The statement claimed that government forces captured 32 people and destroyed 6 encampments while seizing drugs and war materiel, and killing a FARC dissident leader known as “Nando.” An opposition legislator, Karim Vera, said that about 20 Venezuelan troops were wounded.

Details are sketchy, in part due to power outages in La Victoria, but fighting continues. FARC dissidents attacked a Venezuelan military post on the night of March 23.

La Victoria, Venezuela is north and west of the river; Araquita, Colombia is south and east. (From Google Maps)

Civilians are being hit hard. As of March 25, 3,961 residents of La Victoria had fled across the border into Arauquita. “People we have spoken with are terrified and fear for their lives,” Dominika Arseniuk, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Colombia, told the Associated Press.

Those who fled the Venezuelan side say that government forces—including the feared police Special Actions Force (FAES), rarely active outside cities—have been raiding homes, looting possessions, and beating people. FAES may have massacred a family in El Ripial, just east of La Victoria, and may have dressed the bodies in uniforms. Anderson Rodríguez, president of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca, told the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación that other families are presumed disappeared and some bombings were indiscriminate.

Three different Colombian armed groups, all of them nominally guerrillas or guerrilla-descended—are active on both sides of this part of the Colombia-Venezuela border. To varying degrees, they profit from extortion, taxing cross-border contraband, skimming from local treasuries, illicit mining of precious metals including the mineral coltan, and trafficking cocaine—though the ELN has prohibited most coca or cocaine production in Arauca, Colombia. Armed groups have also stepped up recruitment of Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the border, especially of minors.

The presence of armed groups in this lightly governed zone goes back to well before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election; as has happened in all countries bordering Colombia, Venezuelan forces tended to leave Colombian armed groups alone as long as they avoided violence (what Caracas Chronicles calls “a sort of laissez-passer secret policy”). The armed group presence has increased in recent years, though.

The three groups active now are:

  • The National Liberation Army (ELN), whose powerful Frente de Guerra Oriental (FGO) is the region’s largest and longest established. It has been operating in Arauca since the 1980s and expanded in Apure, Venezuela for more than 10 years “with the permission of the Chavista regime,” according to Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime. The FGO’s leader, alias “Pablito,” is a member of the ELN’s five-member Central Command and spends much of his time inside Venezuela. The ELN does not appear to be a party to the past week’s violence.
  • The Venezuelan forces’ target this week, the 10th Front, a structure led by members of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. There are two main networks of FARC dissident bands active in Colombia right now, and the 10th Front appears to be affiliated with the largest: the “1st Front” group led by Miguel Botache alias “Gentil Duarte,” a former mid-level FARC commander most active in south-central Colombia. (InsightCrime’s McDermott says he has doubts about this affiliation.) The 10th may have as many as 800 fighters active in Arauca and Apure. Alias “Nando,” the leader whom Venezuelan forces claim to have killed on March 22, may have been the brother of the 10th Front’s finance chief. The 10th Front and Venezuelan forces have confronted each other in the past, but never on anything near the scale of last week.
  • Members of the Segunda Marquetalia, the other main FARC dissident network. This band was founded by FARC leaders who demobilized in 2017 then rearmed in 2019, led by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the 2012-16 peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The group, named for the site where the FARC began following a 1964 military attack, is smaller than Gentil Duarte’s organization, but may enjoy closer political relations with the government in Caracas. (Iván Márquez appeared with Hugo Chávez on the presidential palace steps in 2007, during a brief moment when Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, authorized Chávez to help broker a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.) McDermott says Márquez “has had ties to the highest levels in Venezuela, including the presidency, and many of those ties are still in place.”

These three groups together may have 2,000 or more members inside Venezuelan territory—only some of them in Apure—but have avoided fighting each other. “They are not together but they are not fighting either, it is like a toxic relationship,” Kyle Johnson of Conflict Responses told a forum last week, “but we must remember that the ELN is very present in that area. The ELN believes it owns Apure and makes people think that those who operate there do so because they allow it. I am not entirely convinced of conflicts between these groups as such.” Conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told La Silla Vacía, “In Apure there is a relationship of coordination, and in some cases collaboration, between the Segunda Marquetalia and the 10th Front. There is no rivalry.” The two dissidences “appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship on the border,” tweeted analyst Bram Ebus, who has written a few much-cited studies of this region.

The Colombian government frequently accuses Venezuela of allowing ELN and FARC dissident fighters to operate safely on its soil. “The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the [peace] agreements by sheltering criminals such as [Nueva Marquetalia leaders] Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, alias El Paisa, and alias Romaña,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, told Reuters on March 23.

Several sources cited by Caracas Chronicles hypothesize that Nicolás Maduro’s regime, in seeking to mediate, regulate, or “triangulate” among the Colombian groups active in the region, has decided that the 10th Front is out of line and must be reined in. “One unconfirmed interpretation of the flare up,” Ebus tweeted, “is a business dispute that escalated quickly when it hit political sensitivities. F10 [10th Front] has irritated Venezuelan military authorities before for failing to pay a cut. Their visible presence in Apure may have been a bridge too far.”

A frequent hypothesis advanced in media coverage contends that Venezuela’s government is favoring the Segunda Marquetalia. “The Venezuelan National Guard has generals in its service who protect the Second Marquetalia,” said former Colombian chief organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla. “There is a sector of the National Armed Forces kneeling at the orders of Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez,” said Venezuelan opposition legislator Gaby Arellano. “Some weeks ago we reported in our PRR [Political Risk Report] that, according to our sources, Iván Márquez was being moved to a more secure location, far from the border, to protect him from eventual operations by Colombian forces,” noted Caracas Chronicles. “The Venezuelan military operations have not touched the operations of the Segunda Marquetalia, which are especially robust in the state of Apure,” McDermott told La Silla Vacía, adding, “The offensive responds to growing reports in Venezuela that the 10th Front had dominance in the area. And it could open a space for Márquez’s dissidents to expand later.”

Cited in Venezuela’s Tal Cual, McDermott also found it notable that Venezuela deployed the brutal police FAES unit to Apure. “Apparently Maduro does not trust the military in the Apure area, the military does not have the capacity to confront the Colombian dissidents, or the military on the border is very corrupt and its capacity has been eroded.”

A statement from a 10th Front leader known as “Arturo” insists that “we weren’t the ones who initiated this confrontation,” vows to keep fighting Venezuelan forces, but also offers to withdraw units if the Venezuelan government sends a “top-level commission to clarify truths.”

Serious incidents like this raise concerns about an outcome that, one hopes, all would wish to avoid: a hot inter-state conflict between Colombia’s and Venezuela’s government forces. The Colombian government announced that it is reinforcing military presence along the Arauca border by about 2,000 troops, and Colombian media report that, though there is no official information, “there is speculation that the Maduro government is enlisting 2,000 men of the Armed Forces to be sent to the border with Arauca.” In Caracas Chronicles’ estimation, “We have no reasons to fear for a war between Colombia and Venezuela, but we can’t forget that Venezuela is protecting public enemies of Colombia (the FARC dissidents), and that this is always a source of risks.”

Ebus sounded concerned, too, on Twitter: “Herein lies the danger: now that the confrontation has escalated, there’s no turning back. The dispute between Chavistas and the guerrillas is out in the open and it will be hard for either side to back down. In a moment like this, the grave risks of the lack of communication between Caracas and Bogotá are painfully evident. Political leaders have limited recourse to calm tensions, leaving the cauldron of border tensions to play out for itself.”

Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility

The lead story in last week’s update covered the case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court of Jineth Bedoya, a journalist abducted, raped, and tortured by paramilitares while doing her job in 2000. Bedoya, whose long quest for justice is the first Colombian case of sexual violence ever heard by the Inter-American Court, saw her virtual hearing interrupted and postponed on March 15, when government lawyers accused the Court’s judges of bias and abruptly exited the proceedings.

The hearing resumed on March 22 and 23, after the Court rejected the government’s objections. A few hours in, the government’s lead attorney, Camilo Gómez, read a statement partially recognizing the Colombian state’s responsibility:

On behalf of the Colombian State, I recognize international responsibility for the failures of the judicial system, which did not carry out a criminal investigation worthy of the victim, by collecting twelve statements, and ask Jineth Bedoya for forgiveness for these facts and for the damage they caused her. The State recognizes that these actions violated her rights to personal integrity and judicial guarantees, in relation to the obligation to guarantee the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

This apology covers the Colombian judicial and prosecutorial system’s failures since the 2000 crime, in a case that has only seen the convictions of three low-level paramilitaries, and then not until 2016 and 2019. “Of the nearly 20 people involved in the process, only three have been prosecuted,” Bedoya told the Court. “Three convictions against material perpetrators, partial justice. Masterminds, none.”

The apology does not cover the Colombian executive branch’s failure to protect Bedoya even after she reported earlier threats and attacks, and in the face of evidence that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction. Gómez, the government’s lawyer, said that his team will respond to those charges in writing.

The government told the Court’s judges that in 1999, after Bedoya and her mother were attacked, the Presidency’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) studied her risk and offered her a bodyguard. Bedoya, they said, “did not make the necessary arrangements to obtain the accompaniment.”

Bedoya explained she could not do her job as an investigative journalist under such conditions, noting that agents of the DAS—which has since been disbanded after a series of scandals—were working with paramilitaries at the time. “Over time, it was demonstrated that this entity carried out illegal espionage, stigmatization, intimidation, leaking of sensitive information to paramilitary groups, and acts of intimidation,” Jonathan Bock of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation said at a subsequent press conference. “Therefore, the lack of protection for the journalist generates state responsibility for failure to comply with the duty of prevention.”

The Colombian government attorneys’ theory that it is not responsible for Bedoya’s lack of protection and prevention “is especially chilling,” said her lawyer, Viviana Krsticevic of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “because it advances a theory according to which Jineth is to blame for what happened to her. The State uses part of the factual information in a rigged way and omits saying important things.”

Jineth Bedoya called the government’s partial recognition of responsibility “one more slap in the face. To only recognize that on 12 occasions they made me testify about my rape, that there was no investigation into the threats, and that they do not admit the reparations that I have sought—it is like the cases that I denounce every day, where a husband beats a wife and the next day says ‘forgive me, I love you but I was in a bad mood’. That is what the State has done with me before the Court.”

The journalist, who is now the deputy editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, said that she continues to receive frequent death threats. She requested protection for her mother, who also receives constant threats and has no bodyguard. If it treats a person like her, a well-known journalist who has access to the media, in such an undignified manner, she concluded, “imagine how the state treats an anonymous victim, who does not have that possibility.”

Links

  • A car bomb detonated outside the mayor’s office in Corinto, in conflictive northern Cauca department, on March 26. Seventeen people were wounded, including eleven municipal employees.
  • Polarizing politics, approaching elections, a slow vaccine rollout, a regressive tax reform, street protests, worsening insecurity, Álvaro Uribe’s judicial case, and the Truth Commission’s upcoming report combine to make Colombia a “powderkeg,” writes Javier Lafuente at Spain’s El País.
  • A New York Times cover story dives deeply into the March 2 bombing of a FARC dissident site in Calamar, Guaviare that killed two minors whom the group had recruited. A new detail: one of the victims, 16-year-old Danna Liseth Montilla, had worked last year with Voces del Guayabero, a local media collective that published much-circulated reports and videos documenting violent government tactics during mid-2020 coca eradication operations. Last week soldiers found another 16-year-old girl who had fled the bombing and spent the next three weeks alone, lost in the jungle. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued new charges of child recruitment, and arrest warrants, against FARC dissident leader “Gentil Duarte”—whose group had recruited the children killed on March 2—and key subordinates.
  • 75 people who led coca substitution programs in the framework of the peace accords have been killed, according to a report from Somos Defensores, Minga, and Viso Mutop.
  • “In Colombia we continue to speak of the existence of at least five non-international armed conflicts, whose actors continue to affect the dignity and lives of the civilian population,” reads the annual Colombia report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, released last week.
  • An analysis in La Silla Vacía finds that the commission that the peace accord set up to manage protection of FARC ex-combatants is moribund, with the government ignoring suggestions and treating it as a forum to present already-crafted policies. Meanwhile, the number of FARC ex-combatants who have been killed since the accords went into effect stands at 261. Protection was among the principal concerns voiced in a letter that the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño, sent to the U.S. Congress on March 23.
  • So far this year, as of March 7, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) reported that 3,119 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. “1,311 families have fled their lands to safeguard their lives and physical integrity.”
  • The case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed by a policeman’s “nonlethal” weapon in downtown Bogotá in November 2019, remains before the military justice system. An amicus brief that Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court argues that the military system “fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case.”
  • A new U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Colombia, as well as to Honduras and Panama, later this year. This unit’s first deployment in mid-2020, which involved dozens of trainers providing instruction to Colombian military personnel in a few conflictive parts of the country, generated controversy in media and among opposition legislators.
  • Retired Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was imprisoned for working with paramilitary groups that carried out massacres in northwestern Colombia during the 1990s, appeared before the JEP and, to the disappointment of victims, denied any links with paramilitary groups. Del Río is free from prison for the moment pending his case before the JEP.
  • The Washington Post published a poignant profile of Gonzalo Cardona, an environmental defender who dedicated his life to saving the endangered yellow-eared parrot in often-conflictive southern Tolima department. Cardona, 55, was shot to death in January.

Weekly border update: March 26, 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. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.

This is a long update. Use these bookmarks to skip to topics:

Migration numbers, and projections

Total apprehensions and encounters

Migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border at a pace rivaling the large numbers encountered in 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended more undocumented people than it had since 2007. Unlike those years, though, about half of all apprehended migrants are being expelled, usually without ever seeing the inside of a Border Patrol facility (most are rapidly turned back into Mexico even if they are Central American). These expulsions are taking place under a public health authority known as “Title 42.”

The Trump administration began implementing Title 42 expulsions in March 2020, and the Biden administration has continued them for all migrant populations except children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

Based on very partial data, mainly provided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to journalists or on Twitter, we roughly estimate that Border Patrol may encounter 150,000 people in March 2021. (The Wall Street Journal, citing “internal Homeland Security documents,” reported that “border agents had recently averaged about 5,000 arrests a day”—which would be 150,000 over a month.)

150,000 would be the largest monthly total since 2006—except about half of those migrants will have been expelled. The number of migrants who actually have to be processed under normal U.S. immigration law would be perhaps half that: 75,000, a number that was exceeded during March, April, May, and June of 2019.

Unaccompanied children

At the end of the day on March 24, CBP reported:

  • 5,156 unaccompanied children were in CBP’s jail-like holding facilities, where they normally should only be for a maximum of 72 hours before being handed off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which maintains a network of licensed shelters. The previous high, set in June 2019, was only 2,600 children.
  • 11,900 children were in custody of ORR, whose existing shelters can hold 13,200 children.
  • Add those two numbers, and that’s 17,056 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. government custody as of March 24.
  • On March 24 alone, CBP apprehended 681 unaccompanied children.
  • CBP was able to transfer 437 children into ORR custody that day—so CBP’s net population in custody grew by 244.
  • ORR moved 268 children out oif its shelters that day, placing them with relatives or sponsors. The agency seeks to avoid having children in its custody for long-term stays: the goal is to place them with relatives in the United States (in over 80 percent of cases; in 40 percent of cases with parents residing in the United States, and otherwise with a sponsor).

According to the Washington Post, “Border officials are on pace to take in more than 17,000 minors this month, which would be an all-time high,” exceeding the record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Here is how that total would appear on a chart of unaccompanied child encounters since the COVID-19 pandemic began:

As the numbers above indicate, ORR has been unable to find space to take children into its shelter system as quickly as CBP is apprehending new children. That may change soon with emergency measures discussed below. For now, though, it is causing alarming backlogs in CBP’s inadequate facilities, mainly Border Patrol stations and processing centers. More than 822 children had been in Border Patrol custody for over 10 days as of March 22.

A temporary soft-sided (tent-based) facility set up to process apprehended migrants in Donna, Texas—a substitute for a more permanent processing facility in McAllen that is under renovation—had 3,889 children housed in its tents on March 20. It was designed to accommodate 250 migrants.

Families

The Biden administration has sought to expel asylum-seeking families under Title 42, continuing a Trump-era arrangement with Mexico allowing it to expel families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras back across the border into Mexican border towns. The data indicates, though, that apprehensions of mostly Central American families are rising sharply—probably more sharply than unaccompanied children—and that even if Mexico takes back more expelled families than it did in February, a large majority will not be expelled.

Instead, as in past years, families are being released from CBP custody into U.S. border towns with notices to appear in immigration court to pursue asylum claims. Most U.S. border towns have nonprofit “respite centers,” most of them now receiving federal funds, that receive families and help them with travel arrangements to destinations elsewhere in the United States.

CBP data reported by Axios point to 13,000 family members encountered at the border between March 14 and 21. Of these, 13 percent were returned to Mexico, far less than the 64 percent in January and 42 percent in February. On March 19, according to NBC News, Border Patrol apprehended 1,807 family members and expelled 179, or just under 10 percent.

The decreased percentage of expelled families is in part due to at least one Mexican state (Tamaulipas) refusing to accept families with children under age seven, perhaps because of a recent law prohibiting detention of migrant children. The main reason, though, may be capacity. As this rough projection shows, Mexico may in fact take back more expelled Central American families in March than in any prior month. But Mexico may have hit a ceiling of the number of family members it can absorb.

With increased family and child migration, there is an increase in the number of large groups of migrants arriving on the U.S. side of the border, mostly in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, and awaiting Border Patrol apprehension. These voluntary mass apprehensions usually happen near the Rio Grande riverbank, south of any existing border fence. As of March 18, Border Patrol reported encountering 32 groups of 100 or more migrants since October, up from 10 such groups in all of fiscal 2020. As of March 22, 25 of those group apprehensions had taken place in the Rio Grande Valley, one of nine sectors into which CBP divides the border.

As of late March, it’s safe to say that family members have eclipsed unaccompanied children as the fastest-growing category of migrant now being encountered at the border. “I would’ve said two weeks ago that this was nothing like 2019,” the Migration Policy Institute’s Andrew Selee told CNN. “The fact now that a high percentage of families are being admitted means that it’s likely we’ll see an exponential increase of families getting across.”

Single adults

Single adults are probably still the majority of encountered migrants, and more than 90 percent of them continue to be expelled quickly under Title 42. With almost no hope of seeking asylum, single adults have little incentive to turn themselves in to border authorities; most seek to avoid them.

An unusually large number may be having success in doing that. “During the past seven days, border officials estimated that about 6,500 people evaded detection,” the Wall Street Journal reported on March 24, citing “a person familiar with the government’s internal estimates.”

Of those who are caught and expelled under Title 42, many try to cross again. “The percentage of migrants caught at the border who had already been caught once grew to nearly 40% during the past six months, compared with 7% in 2019,” according to the Journal. “That’s the wonderful thing now. You have the opportunity to bat again and again. That’s better for us,” a Honduran migrant said. Because of this recidivism, “too often it’s groundhog day,” an unnamed federal law enforcement agent in El Paso told the Dallas Morning News. “We encounter the same person again, and again and again. The harder we make it, the more profitable it becomes.”

“Remain in Mexico” returns continue

Every day, the U.S. government continues to admit about 200 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants whom the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program had relegated to Mexican border towns. As of March 18, the UNHCR representative in Mexico tweeted that 2,660 people subject to the program had been brought across the border to pursue their asylum claims in the United States. In a March 23 meeting, administration officials cited a figure of 3,200. The total population of Remain in Mexico subjects eligible for admission in the United States is estimated at over 25,000; as of March 20, 16,776 had registered to do so.

Admissions had been happening at three ports of entry along the border. Two more Texas ports of entry got added this week: McAllen and Laredo.

Title 42 isn’t going anywhere

Though children and most family members are now avoiding expulsion under Title 42, the Biden administration has been forcefully conveying the message that it intends to keep the Trump-era border restriction in place, offering no sense of a timetable for when it might be lifted. Officials also indicate that they are encouraging Mexico to accept more expelled families.

“The border is closed. We are expelling families, we are expelling single adults and we have made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Meet the Press, in one of five March 22 Sunday-morning news show appearances.

A March 19 Los Angeles Times analysis by Molly O’Toole offers a thorough explanation of the Title 42 expulsions policy, its impact, and its legality. It explains that when encountering migrants, Border Patrol agents may not ask them whether they fear return to their country. If migrants spontaneously claim fear, they are still expelled unless they can meet threat criteria under the Convention Against Torture, which are more stringent than asylum. In Title 42’s first year, fewer than 1 percent of encountered migrants have been able to seek protection.

After the Trump administration implemented Title 42 last March, O’Toole notes, “lawmakers—including then-Sen. Kamala Harris—called it an unconstitutional ‘executive power grab’ that had ‘no known precedent or clear legal rationale.’”

“The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, which sued the Trump and Biden administrations to stop the expulsions, told O’Toole. “There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position.”

On March 25, in his first formal press conference, President Biden offered a full-throated defense of Title 42, and urged its fuller application to families.

If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back—are being sent back. Thousands—tens of thousands of people who are—who are over 18 years of age and single—people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.

…What about dealing with families? Why are not—some not going back? Because Mexico is refusing to take them back. They’re saying they won’t take them back—not all of them.

We’re in negotiations with the President of Mexico. I think we’re going to see that change. They should all be going back, all be going back. The only people we’re not going to let sitting there [sic.] on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.

Biden’s remarks were clearly triggering to the ACLU, which had agreed to hold its lawsuit against Title 42 expulsions until the end of the month while the administration developed plans to stop applying it to families. “We put our Title 42 case for families on temporary hold in exchange for good faith promise to negotiate,” Gelernt tweeted. “But POTUS JUST said his hope is that U.S. wants to expel ALL families if Mexico will allow them. Then litigation may be only choice.”

The expulsions don’t just affect Mexicans and Central Americans. The Invisible Wall, a March 24 report by the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center, and UndocuBlack Network, documents a sharp rise in Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants back to their politically convulsed country, via numerous ICE flights to Port-au-Prince. “More Haitians have been removed to Haiti in the weeks since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office than during all of fiscal year 2020,” the report reads. It notes that more Haitians have been arriving at the border, misled by misinformation that the Biden administration had lifted hardline Trump-era policies like Title 42 expulsions. Writing in The Nation, Jack Herrera discusses the disproportionate challenges faced by Black migrants and those advocating for them.

“What gave Donald Trump his wall was Title 42,” Ruben García, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House respite center, told The Guardian. “That has been incredibly more effective than any physical barrier. This was never about the pandemic to begin with. This was precisely about border enforcement.”

Facilities for unaccompanied children coming online

The thousands of unaccompanied children stuck in CBP and Border Patrol custody are largely invisible, but accounts of conditions in facilities like the Donna, Texas processing center have filtered out via members of Congress. A few senators who accompanied DHS Secretary Mayorkas on a March 19 visit described miserable conditions at the Donna facility.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) tweeted of seeing “100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed [sic.] uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.” CNN reported that “children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven’t seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one,” CNN reported.

At his press conference, President Biden recognized the problem, and promised that 1,000 kids would be moved out of the facilities and into ORR custody within the next week.

A big part of the strategy for doing so involves opening up emergency housing facilities, in some cases with assistance from DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense. They include the following (with a hat tip to an informative tweet thread from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas):

  • 952 beds at the Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, opened February 22.
  • 700 beds at a facility in Midland, Texas, opened in mid-March with significant American Red Cross involvement. On March 19 the Associated Press reported that this facility had paused new intakes as it “has faced multiple issues,” including a 10 percent COVID-19 positivity rate among the children.
  • 2,300 beds at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, opened March 19.
  • 500 beds, expandable to 2,000, at Target Lodge Pecos North, in Pecos, Texas, announced on March 20.
  • 500 beds at a second Carrizo Springs facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, announced on March 23.
  • 1,400 beds at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California, announced on March 24. Closed by COVID-19 until events are to resume in August, the Center was being used to shelter homeless people. It will be available for children for 90 days.
  • 2,400 beds at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio, Texas, announced on March 25.
  • 5,000 beds at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, announced March 25.
  • 350 beds at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, in San Antonio, Texas, announced March 25. A Pentagon spokesman, saying “we have just received this request” from ORR, said he had no details about Fort Bliss and Joint Base San Antonio.

It appears that plans have been abandoned to use Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California and Fort Lee in Virginia. This would not be the first time military bases have been used to accommodate unaccompanied children. In 2014, the Obama administration sheltered up to 7,500 kids for about four months at Joint Base San Antonio; Naval Base Ventura County, California; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

All together, these facilities could shelter about 15,600 children which, added to ORR’s existing capacity of 13,200, would allow short-term care for 28,800 kids. These 15,600 beds, however, would be in emergency, often barracks-like conditions, instead of the more than 170 state-licensed childcare facilities that ORR normally runs.

ORR is also endeavoring to empty out its shelters as quickly as possible by placing children with relatives or sponsors in the United States. For so-called “category 1” children—those who have parents or legal guardians here—ORR is streamlining its background checks and approvals process, even paying the travel costs that relatives must incur in order to retrieve the children.

These measures could soon bring the child migrant situation more or less under control, at least bringing an end to the conditions revealed in a series of photos that Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared with Axios on March 23, depicting crowds of children in the Donna facility, lying on mats closely placed on a tent floor, under mylar blankets.

Rep. Cuellar said he shared the photos, which he had been given, because the Biden administration had been refusing media access to Donna. Both CBP and HHS have been refusing requests to visit their facilities, “due to agency COVID protocols and in order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care.”

Like Cuellar, other centrist Democratic legislators from border states have been urging the Biden administration to move faster. “The policy does need to change,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m concerned they don’t totally have this figured out.” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) “pressed the president in a closed-door meeting earlier this week for a timeline for additional resources, facilities and coronavirus testing protocols,” the Journal added. Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), produced a joint statement with Texas Republican John Cornyn (R-Texas) calling on the federal government to “rise to this challenge” without being “consumed by partisan battles on this critical topic.”

Accommodations for a rising number of families

As noted above, asylum-seeking families are now arriving in numbers that appear to exceed Mexico’s ability to receive expulsions, and many are now being released into the U.S. interior. This week NBC News and the Los Angeles Times reported that in some cases, the families are being released without an immigration court date specified on their paperwork. They were asked to provide contact information, then given documents with the court date “to be determined” with instructions to expect to be contacted within 30 days. Asylum attorneys cited say that migrants find this very confusing. A CBP document told Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol agents that they could release migrants without court dates when facilities reach 100 percent capacity, among other criteria—a standard that has long since been surpassed.

Most releases of asylum seeking families happen in border cities that have respite centers run by non-profit organizations, where migrants can often stay for a day or two and receive food and medical attention while making travel arrangements to their U.S. destination cities. One of the best known respite centers, the Catholic Charities facility run by Sister Norma Pimentel in McAllen, Texas, received 150 to 200 family members each day during the week of March 15, the Associated Press reported, while the Los Angeles Times learned that 350 family members were released into the surrounding Rio Grande Valley region in one day, March 22. The respite center run by Jewish Family Service in San Diego, California, is also busy. It sheltered 490 asylum seekers in February, while as of March 19 it had attended to a total of 1,510 for the month, with Hondurans, Brazilians, and Cubans the largest groups. As of March 21, it was lodging some of the family migrants in four hotels.

In Arizona, Border Patrol has begun releasing families into desert towns with few resources to attend to families, like Yuma, Ajo, and Gila Bend, forcing service providers to scramble.

Before releasing families, CBP is also facing challenges in processing them: collecting identifying information, performing background checks, starting asylum paperwork, and other duties. The agency is opening tent-based processing centers in Tucson and Yuma. ICE has signed an $86.9 million contract with the Texas nonprofit Endeavors to add 1,239 beds in seven Arizona and Texas hotels, where families can stay while completing paperwork. Families may be free to leave the hotels within six hours if paperwork is completed, they have transportation, and test negative for COVID-19.

The lack of processing capacity is leading to miserable conditions in the Rio Grande Valley, where up to 600 families have been spending up to a few days under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, sleeping on the dirt “without much food or access to medical care,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “We asked them why we were there for so long,” a Honduran mother of a five-year-old told the Times. “All they told us was, ‘That’s your problem.’”

Messaging and smugglers

Biden administration officials are aiming to be “more aggressive” in communicating that the border is “closed” and migrants shouldn’t come. “The message isn’t, ‘Don’t come now,’ it’s, ‘Don’t come in this way, ever,’” Amb. Roberta Jacobson, the National Security Council’s (NSC) coordinator for the southern border, told Reuters. “The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways.” The U.S. government has contracted radio ads across Latin America, in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages, warning people not to come.

Still, the administration has come under fire for perceptions that officials sent mixed messages by allegedly indicating that they would be more welcoming than Donald Trump. “You’ve got to be unambiguous,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “’Don’t come now, come later?’ What kind of message is that?”

It’s not clear, though, that what officials say matters. In Tijuana, a small plaza outside the main port of entry to San Diego has filled up with 200 tents, housing perhaps 1,500 migrants, none of whom have a chance of being admitted to the United States as long as Title 42 remains in place. “Badly misinformed, the migrants harbor false hope that President Joe Biden will open entry to the United States briefly and without notice,” the Associated Press reported. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told the Washington Post of an interaction with Central American teenagers at the Carrizo Springs ORR facility. “They said, ‘We see this on TV. We see images of people coming across. … We see people coming across, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”

Migrant smugglers, in particular, offer counter-messaging, on social media and through community ties, that almost certainly overwhelms whatever warnings a U.S. official might issue from a lectern. A migrant told the Dallas Morning News of being enticed by $10,000 to $15,000 smuggling package, with $6,000 up front, that “would include a paid Uber ride from a nice hotel to the border wall where he’d use a $6 rebar ladder to climb over part of a $15 billion structure.”

Smugglers know that the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children, and some told Reuters that they’re encouraging parents to send their children alone. “It’s good to take advantage of the moment, because children are able to pass quickly,” Daniel, a Guatemalan smuggler, told the wire service. “That’s what we’re telling everyone.” A Mexican smuggler added that “the cartel that controls the territory along the border in his region mandates that he and other smugglers use the migrant children as a decoy for the cartel’s own drug smuggling operations.”

Kamala Harris to lead a foreign policy push

On March 24 the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central American governments to address migration. Her mandate will focus on diplomatic efforts both to “stem the flow” of migrants and to collaborate on efforts to ease the “root causes” underlying migration from the region. The vice president’s involvement “could help shift part of the conversation away from the media-centric idea that the sum total of this ‘crisis’ is what’s happening at the border, and focus it on the deeper causes of these migrations,” observed Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

The diplomatic push is already underway. On March 22 Amb. Jacobson traveled to Mexico, accompanied by NSC Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and the newly named State Department special envoy for Central America’s Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga. González and Zúñiga were to travel to Guatemala on the 23rd, but ash from the Pacaya volcano closed Guatemala City’s airport, so meetings were virtual. 

In meetings with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and other officials, the U.S. delegation focused on how to cooperate “to manage migration” and make it “orderly and safe.” While we cannot confirm this, messaging probably included suggesting that Mexico interdict more northbound migrants and—as President Biden mentioned in his press conference remarks—accept more expelled families at the border.

Mexico cracks down

Mexico has clearly gotten the message, following up a March 18 agreement to do more to control migration with a deployment of immigration and security personnel to its southern border with Guatemala. On March 19, immigration agents and National Guardsmen in riot gear paraded through the capital of border state Chiapas. The next day, agents and a few guardsmen appeared at several sites along the Suchiate River bordering Guatemala, checking the credentials of all who cross irregularly—as both migrants and people conducting local business have done in this area for decades.

Mexico also declared its southern border closed to all inessential travel, which it had not done when the pandemic broke out a year ago. Counter-migrant operations in the border zone, officials announced, would include “the installation of sanitary and inspection filters [checkpoints] to verify the documentation and migratory status of individuals and families seeking to enter the national territory, through the use of technological equipment such as drones and night vision mechanisms for surveillance.”

Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval announced on March 22 that 8,715 army troops and national guardsmen (many of them army personnel on temporary duty) were deployed to the country’s northern and southern border. The Washington Post questioned whether this number was enough: “barely more than the average of 8,058 troops posted at the borders during 2020” and less than the 15,000 troops sent to Mexico’s borders in mid-2019 when Donald Trump threatened the country with tariffs if it failed to crack down on migration.

Groups like WOLA and Mexico’s governmental human rights ombudsman warned that a militarized Mexican crackdown on migrants could have grave human rights consequences, as such operations have in the past. The announcement from Mexico’s migration authority, WOLA noted

contains no reference to the possibility that any families might need asylum. Additionally, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is thus far glaringly absent from the list of institutions playing a role in the border operation. The institutions that are most visible instead include Mexico’s armed forces—whose core mission is to defend against enemies, not to carry out migration tasks—and the National Guard, which is composed mainly of military troops and has already been implicated in human rights abuses against migrants.

Central America aid

González and Zúñiga spoke with Central American reporters on March 23 about priorities for “root causes” assistance to the region. President Biden has voiced support for providing the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras)” with $4 billion in such assistance over four years.

The U.S. officials centered their message on countering corruption, which is “at the center of everything we have to do,” as González put it. They mentioned plans to create a task force to combat corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with an emphasis on assisting “prosecutors, investigators, and judges in their own countries, who are carrying out these important investigations.”

Asked about relations with El Salvador   President Nayib Bukele (who has repeatedly attacked democratic institutions and rule of law), Zúñiga emphasized the importance of separation of powers and strong institutions in a democracy. On Guatemala, the officials voiced support for an independent Constitutional Court, following recent nominations of a majority of justices believed to have ties to corrupt interests.

President Bukele tweeted in English that he was opposed to a “recycled plan that did not work in 2014.” He rejected “the ‘northern triangle’ concept” that treats El Salvador the same as Guatemala and Honduras, which send more migrants to the United States. Measured by apprehensions since January 2020 as a portion of population, though, El Salvador is only modestly behind the other two Northern Triangle  nations:

  • Honduras: 849 U.S. border apprehensions/encounters per 100,000 population
  • Guatemala: 549 per 100,000 population
  • El Salvador: 459 per 100,000 population
  • Mexico: 316 per 100,000 population

For her part, Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that allocates foreign aid, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recommending “severely restricting funding that goes to central governments of the region. Instead, our foreign assistance should go to civil society, non-governmental organizations, multilateral institutions, and other credible institutions.”

Republican reactions

Eighteen Republican senators are paying a visit to the border on March 26, led by Texas Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News that if the delegation is denied access to facilities where CBP is holding children, “we’re going to shut the Senate down.” Graham—who in 2013 was a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators who promoted a bipartisan immigration reform bill—added, “It will never change, President Biden, until you tell everybody to go home and stop bringing people into the United States.”

(Also coming to the border on the weekend of March 27 will be a delegation of Democratic members of Congress invited by another Texas legislator, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) of El Paso.)

Elsewhere in the Senate, five Republicans sought, and failed, to obtain unanimous consent for consideration of legislation, the “Stopping Border Surges Act,” that would make child and family detention legal, would make it possible to immediately deport children from non-contiguous countries, would reinstate “safe third country” agreements with Central America, and would tighten credible fear standards, among other measures.

More than 60 Republican House members and 40 Republican senators have requested that the Government Accountability Office, an independent auditing arm of Congress, examine the legality of President Biden’s 60-day suspension of border wall construction. The building freeze, mandated by a January 20 presidential proclamation, formally ended on March 21 without a plan in place yet for how to proceed. Construction remains on hold, however. The Republican legislators allege that Biden’s freeze is “a blatant violation of federal law and infringes on Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.”

Links

  • A DHS Inspector-General report made public on March 22 finds that, during the 2019 spike in child and family migration, the Trump administration threw out existing plans for dealing with the challenge, “created ad-hoc solutions,” and failed to get agencies to work together smoothly.
  • “Immigrant rights advocates and others claim that” March 11 footage of smugglers floating migrants across the Rio Grande, which aired on CNN, “was staged, potentially with the cooperation of the Border Patrol,” the American Prospect reports. Smugglers, it notes, “don’t normally provide face masks and life vests, nor ferry six boatloads of people across in broad daylight.”
  • The New York Times published a gripping photo essay from Comitancillo, Guatemala, depicting the return of the bodies of 13 migrants from that town who were massacred, apparently by Mexican state police, in Camargo, Tamaulipas, on January 22.
  • On March 18 the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for up to 4 million “Dreamers”—undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children—and recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Colombia Peace Update: March 20, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Jineth Bedoya’s Inter-American Court case delayed as government “walks out” of hearing

One of Colombia’s most emblematic human rights cases suffered a momentary but confounding setback, as government representatives abruptly withdrew from a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This Court is an OAS-affiliated body, based in Costa Rica, that hears cases when signatory nations’ judiciaries have proved unable to win redress for victims. It was holding a virtual hearing on March 15 for oral arguments in the case of Jineth Bedoya, a prominent journalist who was abducted, raped, and tortured, with security forces’ involvement, in 2000.

That year Bedoya, then a reporter at El Espectador, was investigating networks of arms trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activity linking paramilitaries, guerrillas, organized crime, and members of the security forces. These networks centered on Bogotá’s La Modelo prison, which both then and now has been a violent place. (A year ago, on March 21, 2020, guards killed 24 prisoners there, apparently shooting to kill, while putting down a riot.) “La Modelo was the ‘office’ from which all crime in the country was connected,” reads an account from Bedoya reproduced this week by journalist Cecilia Orozco.

In May 2000, Bedoya was receiving threats from paramilitaries as she investigated a massacre of 32 prisoners at La Modelo. On the morning of May 25, 2000, she showed up at the prison gate—which is not far from the Chief Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) and the U.S. embassy—for an arranged meeting with paramilitaries who had been threatening her. “It was a trap,” Bedoya recalls. She was abducted from the front door of the prison and driven out of the city, tortured, and repeatedly raped. “Then I don’t know what happened. I was left abandoned on a road, almost dead.”

Even as a respected reporter from mainstream media outlets (she later moved to El Tiempo), and even as a 2012 State Department “International Woman of Courage,” Jineth Bedoya has been unable to win justice for what happened to her. Only three of her attackers—low-level actors—have been sentenced. The Fiscalía mysteriously lost key evidence. “For 11 years the prosecutor who was in charge of the case would call me to suggest that I investigate, and give the results to him.” The Fiscalía forced her to narrate, and relive, what was done to her on 12 different occasions. One of her sources was killed an hour after meeting with her. She learned that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction.

She went to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which issued recommendations to Colombia for her case. These went unmet. The next step was to go to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which took her case in May 2019. It reached its oral arguments phase, with hearings set to begin on March 15, 2021. The Guardian hailed what appeared to be a big step toward justice:

“To bring my case before an international court not only vindicates what happened to me, as a woman and a journalist,” Bedoya said in a video shared on Twitter. “It opens a window of hope for thousands of women and girls who, like me, had to face sexual violence in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict.”

That’s not quite what happened. The hearing, held virtually due to COVID-19, began with justices asking Bedoya questions. After a while, the government’s representative asked to speak.

That representative was Camilo Gómez, head of the National Agency for the Legal Defense of the State (ANDJE) in President Iván Duque’s government. From 2000 to 2002 Gómez was the high commissioner for peace—the government’s chief negotiator—for then-president Andrés Pastrana’s failed effort to negotiate peace with the FARC.

Instead of addressing what happened to Bedoya, Gómez charged that the Court’s six judges were “pre-judging” Colombia during the day’s questioning, and called for all but one of them to be recused. The government’s legal team then abruptly exited the virtual hearing. The judges heard from one more witness, then suspended the Court’s proceedings while they determined what to do next.

Condemnation of the government’s response came quick. “The Colombian government’s decision to effectively stomp out of the Inter-American Court hearing shows the authorities’ shocking disregard for the violence inflicted on Jineth Bedoya, and is a slap in the face to every Colombian journalist—especially women journalists—fighting impunity,” said Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I have been litigating before the Inter-American Court for 25 years, said Bedoya’s lawyer Viviana Krsticevic, the director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “and this is unusual, unheard of, we are surprised that the State of Colombia is doing what even really authoritarian governments like Fujimori’s government in Peru, Ortega’s in Nicaragua, Maduro’s in Venezuela, did not do.”

On March 17 Camilo Gómez sent Bedoya a letter, which he made public on Twitter, suggesting an out-of-court settlement. Such offers have happened before, said Jonathan Bock of the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), but they have merely been offers of monetary payments without the government recognizing its responsibility for what happened to Bedoya. Bedoya’s legal team refused, adding that making the letter public was “an act of harassment and malicious litigation.”

On March 18 the Court’s judges, led by the one justice whom Gómez had not called to be recused, rejected the Colombian government’s request for new judges. Jineth Bedoya’s hearing is set to restart on March 22 as though nothing had happened.

Numerous activists and analysts voiced puzzlement at the Colombian government’s behavior, showing insensitivity to a high-profile victim while inviting a legal defeat. Santiago Medina-Villarreal, a former lawyer at the Inter-American Court, fears that the government is playing a long game, sending a message ahead of future cases scheduled to go before the Court. “With this attitude, the State intends to undermine with doubts the judges’ appearance of impartiality.” An effort to de-legitimize the Court, Krsticevic told El Tiempo, “would be very serious for Colombia and the region.”

“They killed me on the morning of May 25 [2000],” Jineth Bedoya writes. “I believed that words are the best way to transform pain. But my life is over: having to see the marks of sexual violence and torture on my body every day is something that does not allow me to close this cycle definitively.”

U.S. officials point to outlines of Biden approach to coca and peace

While eradicating record amounts of coca manually, Colombia continues to move toward restarting a U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where the plant is grown. Citing health concerns, the government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this program in 2015. As past weekly updates have noted, the new Biden administration is not opposing continued U.S. support for “fumigation.” In fact, February and March State Department documents hailed the Duque government’s efforts to relaunch the program.

On March 14, El Tiempo’s longtime Washington correspondent, Sergio Gómez, shed a bit more light on the Biden administration’s thinking, excerpting views on eradication and peace accord implementation from interviews with several officials. In general, these officials and legislative staff told Gómez that they don’t see fumigation or forced eradication as keys to long-term reductions in coca-growing. Instead, they voiced a preference for implementation of the 2016 peace accord and increasing government presence in long-abandoned rural territories.

Here are a few highlights indicating how official thinking may be evolving:

  • ”A senior U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá authorized to speak on this issue: “Essentially, our idea is that the territorial transformation that would come from the full implementation of the accords is the best long-term security strategy and the most promising and sustainable solution to the problem of illicit crops.”
  • Another U.S. Embassy official: “The clearest lesson from the period from 2012 to 2017, when cultivation went from its lowest point to its highest in just 5 years, is that Colombia was successful in reducing crops, but not in sustaining those gains. … The best way to sustain them is to increase the presence of the state and offer economic opportunities in rural areas. You can’t just eradicate and attack criminal groups.”
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who voiced disappointment with a February State Department document praising fumigation: “We want to help Colombia reduce coca production and cocaine trafficking, but as we have seen over the years sustainable progress is not measured in the number of hectares eradicated. Government presence—in the territories most affected by this problem—is not achieved simply by sending in armed forces. Nor do we see evidence that illegal armed groups are being dismantled, especially when so many social leaders are being threatened and killed.”
  • A senior legislative aide, who said that the State Department’s recent written praise for forced eradication “seemed ‘outdated’ or the work of some Trump administration holdover”: “We want to see progress in coca reduction, but we don’t see anything that gives us confidence that the Duque government has a sustainable strategy to achieve it.”
  • Another congressional staffer: “When Plan Colombia kicked off in 2000, the goal was to reduce coca cultivation by half in 5 years. And here we are, 20 years later and there is still the same or more drugs than two decades ago with a ‘new plan’—agreed between Duque and Trump—that again seeks to reduce crops by half in another 5 years.”

Sen. Leahy’s office told El TIempo “that the Senator ‘would oppose the use of U.S. funds to finance aerial spraying’ when it resumes,” which could mean a fight if the Biden administration decides to keep supporting the controversial herbicide spray program.

The ELN and Ecuador’s elections

The candidate who led February 7 first-round voting for Ecuador’s presidential election is vehemently denying allegations that his campaign received support from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Andrés Arauz, the candidate favored by left-populist ex-president Rafael Correa, is threatening legal action.

On October 25, a Colombian Army raid in Chocó killed Andrés Felipe Vanegas, alias “Uriel,” a mid-ranking ELN leader who had a high profile because he gave frequent interviews. At the site of the raid, soldiers reportedly recovered computers and other data devices with over 3 terabytes of information.

On January 30, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana received some of that information from official sources. An e-mail from Uriel to two other ELN members, presumed to be contacts in Ecuador, appeared to refer to a US$80,000 “investment” in “supporting hope.” Andrés Arauz’s political coalition is called the “Union for Hope.”

On February 12, a few days after Arauz led first-round voting with 32.7 percent, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (FIscal), Francisco Barbosa, paid a quick visit to Quito to hand over to his Ecuadorian counterpart all evidence from “Uriel” pointing to links between the ELN and Arauz.

Last week Arauz enlisted the aid of a Colombian jurist, former Fiscal Eduardo Montealegre, an opponent of Colombia’s current ruling party whose term coincided completely with the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. As El Colombiano explains, the Ecuadorian candidate granted Montealegre power of attorney “to investigate and file a complaint for falsehood and procedural fraud against Colombia due to allegations linking him to the ELN.”

Arauz called the allegations a “crude setup.” He argued that “Uriel” operated far from Colombia’s border with Ecuador, and questioned the Colombian armed forces’ honesty, arguing that they have engaged in a cover-up of thousands of extrajudicial executions—the so-called “false positives” human rights scandal. He added that he sees Colombia’s conservative government engaging in “a state policy to delegitimize and undermine governments with progressive tendencies.” The ELN, for its part, also rejects the allegations, calling them “fake news.”

We are unlikely to learn what really happened before April 11, when Ecuadorians vote in the presidential runoff election. Polling is sparse, but the race appears close between Arauz and center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso.

Links

  • WOLA hosted a discussion on March 18 about the Colombian military’s “false positives” killings, which the transitional justice system (JEP) revealed in February to have likely been more extensive than most knew. On March 17, the Mothers of False Positives (MAFAPO) presented a report to the Truth Commission.
  • In May 2019, the New York Times had triggered an outcry by reporting that Colombia’s Army leadership was returning to “body counts” as a measure of success, setting numerical goals for units to meet. The Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) just completed an investigation begun that month, exonerating the Army’s commander at the time, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, of “pressuring or requiring” generals “to meet minimum targets for casualties, captures or demobilizations.”
  • El Tiempo reported that coroners have identified the bodies of eight of the ten people killed in a March 2 bombing raid on a FARC dissident site in Guaviare. One of the eight was a 16-year-old girl. (El Nuevo Siglo reported that coroners determined a second girl, age 15, was also killed in the attack, but the El Tiempo story makes no mention of this.) As noted in last week’s update, charges that child combatants were among the dead led Defense Minister Diego Molano to make some very crude remarks about child combatants.
  • Colombia’s Congress briefly faced a legislative proposal to extend President Duque’s term by two years, along with those of members of Congress, mayors, governors, high court judges, the chief prosecutor, and other top officials. The initiative quickly collapsed after news of it emerged, and 15 legislators withdrew their signatures.
  • “In the coming months, negotiations will be concluded for the acquisition of 24 new, state-of-the-art fighter planes,” Semana reports. The purchase could total US$4 billion.
  • The next step for the witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe will take place on April 6, when a judge will consider the Fiscalía’s request to drop the charges. (See the overview of the case in our March 6 update.)
  • The JEP’s “top-down” investigation of the FARC’s mass kidnappings, which featured the indictment of eight top leaders in February, is moving down the chain of command, with three mid-level leaders providing grim testimony of the inhuman treatment to which they subjected their kidnap victims.

Weekly Border Update: March 19, 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. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.

Administration scrambles to accommodate children while expelling most others

Unaccompanied children

Border Patrol apprehended 561 unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexico border on March 15, up from a daily average of 332 per day in February. On a March 18 call, senior Biden administration officials told reporters that about 14,000 migrant children who had arrived without a parent or guardian were in U.S. government custody.

Of these, 9,562 were in the shelter system of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services or HHS), where COVID-19 response had lowered a 13,200-bed systemwide capacity to about 8,000. Once they are in these shelters, ORR works to place the children with a relative or other sponsor in the United States, with whom they stay while the U.S. immigration court system decides whether deportation would endanger them. In more than 80 percent of cases, a relative is located, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas notified this week. In more than 40 percent of cases, that relative is a parent or legal guardian.

(Read more about how the processing and sheltering of unaccompanied migrant children are supposed to work, and how the caseload has grown, in our updates of March 12March 5, and February 26 and in a new explainer document that WOLA published on March 17.)

The remaining 4,500 unaccompanied children were stuck in Border Patrol stations and processing centers as of March 18, awaiting placement in ORR’s shelters. This shatters the previous high of 2,600 kids in temporary Border Patrol custody, set in June 2019. 

By law, children are not supposed to be in short-term Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours. The agency’s austere holding facilities—which resemble the holding tanks in a local police station or, as some say, “cages”—are not designed for vulnerable populations. As of March 14, though, when 4,200 kids were in Border Patrol facilities, about 3,000 had been there longer than 72 hours. The average time in custody climbed to 120 hours by March 17. CNN reported on March 15 that more than 300 of the kids had been stuck for more than 10 days.

Two attorneys who visited CBP’s temporary migrant processing facility in Donna, Texas on March 11 came away horrified by what they heard from 20 interviews with kids. The Donna facility, which is mostly sturdy tents, can hold 250 people but had about 1,000 at the time, and children said they had gone days without showering. Kids are sleeping on gym mats or on benches and concrete floors, under thin mylar blankets. Many have been stuck in crowded tents for days. A “staggering” number of the 1,000 kids at Donna are under 10 years old, one of the lawyers told the New York Times.

The main bottleneck here is at ORR: the agency’s shelter system is nearly out of space, and can’t place children with sponsors as fast as new kids are arriving at Border Patrol facilities. The federal government is taking several measures to increase its capacity:

  • On March 12 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowed ORR to return its bed space back to pre-pandemic levels.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of DHS) converted the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas into a shelter for up to 3,000 migrant boys age 15 to 17.
  • FEMA has also converted an oil workers’ camp in Midland, Texas, into temporary shelter space for another 700 children, and HHS is looking at other facilities in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, and Virgina.
  • On March 17 FEMA awarded $110 million in funds appropriated by the American Rescue Plan Act “to eligible local nonprofit and governmental organizations and state governmental facilities” working with migrants.
  • Secretary Mayorkas reported that more than 560 DHS employees had volunteered “to support HHS in our collective efforts to address the needs of the unaccompanied children.”

Families and expulsions

“We will have, I believe, by next month enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go,” President Joe Biden told ABC News. “Let’s get somethin’ straight though,” the president added (with the contraction in the original transcript). “The vast majority of people crossin’ the border are being sent back. Are being sent back, immediately sent back.”

This is true. As last week’s update noted, 72 percent of migrants Border Patrol encountered at the border in February were expelled, usually within hours, without seeing the inside of a CBP facility or having a chance to ask for asylum or protection. They are either flown back to their own countries or, if they are Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran, sent back across the border into Mexico, where the Mexican government has agreed to receive most of them.

This is done under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that permits rapid expulsions, and which two presidential administrations have now interpreted to mean rapid expulsions without regard to migrants’ protection needs. The Trump administration began employing Title 42 in March 2020.

The Biden administration continues to use it, but it is not expelling unaccompanied children. It is, however, expelling nearly all single adults and a large portion of family units (parents with children).

As CBS News reported a week ago, nearly 60 percent of families Border Patrol encountered in February were not expelled. That is up from 38 percent not expelled in January. There appear to be two main reasons why a family does not get expelled. Either they are from countries to which expulsions are difficult, like Cuba or Venezuela, or they are part of a minority of families from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) whom Mexico is refusing to take back.

Though there is no public written evidence of a policy, authorities in Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas have been refusing expulsions of families with small children, citing a lack of family-appropriate shelter space that would violate a recent child welfare law. (Ciudad Juárez faces some capacity limits too, according to the U.S. Border Patrol Chief in El Paso.) 

This has led Border Patrol and ICE to release some asylum-seeking Central American families, with notices to appear in U.S. immigration court, in south Texas border cities. There, charities have been taking in the modest flow of family members: about 150 migrants per day in Brownsville, for instance, where the mayor told local news, “It’s not a threat at this point.”

DHS has found a way, though, to expel many families despite Mexico’s localized restrictions: flying them to parts of the border where they can still expel them. On March 9 authorities in El Paso were notified that two daily planeloads of migrants would begin being flown all the way across the state, from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. Even as shelters prepared to greet the families, by March 13 it was evident that DHS was bringing most from the airport straight to the border, sending them across into Ciudad Juárez. WOLA has heard, but hasn’t yet fully confirmed, that flights are also going to San Diego to expel families into Tijuana.

As the border remains closed with no end to Title 42 in sight, national news covered populations of protection-seeking migrants crowding into Mexican border towns: in a new tent encampment outside Tijuana’s El Chaparral port of entry; among the tearful expelled population in Ciudad Juárez; and at a grim government shelter in Reynosa that is now holding 700 unaccompanied children apprehended by Mexican authorities. 

The Biden administration’s message to them continues to be “don’t come now,” as repeated by the president himself in his ABC News interview:

I can say quite clearly don’t come over. And the process of getting set up, and it’s not gonna take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don’t leave your town or city or community. We’re gonna make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by department of—by DHS and also access with HHS, the Health and Human Services, to say you can apply for asylum from where you are right now.

David Shahoulian, the DHS assistant secretary for border security and immigration, acknowledged that “the messaging to discourage migrants from coming had not been working and that the administration would need to be clearer in the future,” according to the New York Times. With thousands of expelled families clearly acting on erroneous information, it’s not clear what the administration can do to counteract inaccurate but rapidly propagated messages from smugglers and on social media. “At some point,” longtime Ciudad Juárez migration official Enrique Valenzuela told Public Radio International, “people were tricked into thinking that the U.S. opened its doors all the way to people seeking international protection.”

Reports indicate Biden administration pressing Mexico to interdict more migrants

In a March 1 video call with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the New York Times reported, President Biden asked Mexico to do more to “help solve the problem” of increased immigration flows to the United States. In the same conversation, López Obrador asked Biden for access to stockpiled doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which is not yet approved for use in the United States.

On March 18 the White House announced that the U.S. government would share 2.5 million vaccines with Mexico and 1.5 million with Canada. Mexico, meanwhile, has agreed to do more to contain migration through its territory and to take more families expelled under Title 42, the Times and the Washington Post reported. Both countries’ officials insist that there was no vaccines-for-border-enforcement quid pro quo; a senior Mexican diplomat told the Post that it was a “parallel negotiation.”

Whatever it was, the result could be more Title 42 expulsions of families into Mexico, which as noted above has been refusing to take back Central American families with small children in some areas. “Mexican officials have told the Biden administration they are willing to alter or delay the implementation of a law passed in November that limits their ability to detain minors,” the same article continues. DHS Secretary Mayorkas had hinted at this in a March 16 memo: “We are working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families.”

Mexican immigration and security forces have meanwhile stepped up immigration raids throughout its territory. Reuters reported that Mexican forces apprehended about 1,200 Central American migrants, including more than 300 children, along southern Mexican cargo train routes between January 25 and February 16. Another 800 were detained aboard buses and tractor trailers “in recent weeks.” Mexico has not released February migrant apprehension data yet; in January it reported apprehending 9,574 migrants—the second-highest monthly total since the pandemic began—of whom 9,145 were from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).

A more visible Mexican immigration enforcement effort is expected to be announced soon, according to current and former Mexican officials,” the Washington Post reported on March 18. The new effort, it added, may be targeted less at migrants along the train route—generally the poorest migrant population—and more at the larger number who travel, often in private vehicles, with paid smugglers. Such an operation may require a large anti-corruption component to succeed, since much of smugglers’ high fees are reportedly spread among officials who enable their vehicles to proceed.

Mexico has also agreed to increase its presence—mainly of members of its National Guard, a new militarized police force—near its southern border with Guatemala, according to the New York Times and Reuters. On March 18, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat announced that it would be closing its southern border to all non-essential traffic, as the United States has done with its southern border. It’s not clear yet what criteria must be met for travel to be “essential.”

Secretary Mayorkas testifies as GOP cranks up “crisis” rhetoric

“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children,” reads a March 16 memo from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas updating about the situation at the border. The secretary also gave his first major testimony since his nomination process concluded, appearing for four hours before a House Homeland Security Committee that displayed bitter divisions between its Democratic and Republican members.

“The border is secure, and the border is not open,” Mayorkas told the committee. His written testimony laid out very broad outlines for what a new approach to protection-seeking migration might look like, naming three elements: addressing root causes driving migration; helping regional governments offer more asylum or protection in their own countries; and “dramatically” improving the U.S. migrant processing and asylum adjudication systems.

That last point—asylum adjudication—is in bad shape: the testimony notes that backlogs are so bad that “[i]n some locations, there is a more than four-year waiting period for a final hearing.” Mayorkas’s March 16 memo sets a goal of “shorten[ing] from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.”

Republican legislators at the March 17 House Homeland hearing were sharply critical. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a committee member who is also the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised “Remain in Mexico” and other Trump-era restrictions on asylum, adding, “With all due respect, this administration has created this crisis. … Cartels and traffickers see that the green light is on at our southern border, and the United States is open for business.”

Several Republicans sought to get Mayorkas to use the word “crisis” to describe the situation at the border. The secretary’s reply to Rep. McCaul was blunt: “A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration.”

“Biden border crisis” is now one of the most prominent messages coming from GOP politicians and media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart. A group of 12 House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and ranking Homeland Security Committee member John Katko (R-New York), traveled to El Paso on March 15. They delivered statements in front of a half-mile segment of border wall that was built in 2019 by a private non-profit whose leadership—including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, until Trump pardoned him—is facing fraud charges. “There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” Rep. McCarthy said. Rep. Katko called it “disorder at the border by executive order.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been vocal about the border situation, made a March 17 appearance using as a backdrop the Dallas convention center where FEMA is sheltering unaccompanied children. “The Biden administration opened the floodgates to any child who wants to come across the border,” he said. Abbott asked the federal government to give Texas law enforcement officers access to the children in the convention center, in order to investigate human trafficking. The Biden administration turned him down on grounds that the children should not be forced to undergo the trauma of repeating their stories several times.

Two sets of Republicans’ claims about the border situation have been widely debunked.

First, Abbott and others had been alleging that the migrant population is spreading COVID-19. In fact, the acting head of FEMA reported that less than 6 percent of tests on migrants have come back positive, lower than Texas’s overall 7.4 percent positivity rate. Migrants in Brownsville showed a similar positivity rate: 210 of nearly 3,000 people tested since January 25, or 6 percent.

Second is terrorism. Katko, McCarthy, and others on the March 15 El Paso visit said Border Patrol agents told them they had apprehended four individuals so far in fiscal year 2021 who were on the U.S. “Known or Suspected Terrorist” list (or perhaps the Terrorist Screening Database). Three were from Yemen and one was from Serbia; McCarthy had also named Iran, Turkey, and China but later had to retract. While the U.S. government is not transparent about this data, four apprehensions of people on the watchlist appears to be normal, according to a Washington Post fact check that surmised, “the real number ranges from around three to a dozen per year.”

Former officials noted that being on this list is only an alert, and does not point to actual involvement in terrorism; it often indicates a degree of separation from a suspected terrorist. Investigative journalist Ryan Deveraux, who looked deeply into this in 2014, tweeted that the database “is a train wreck that has been shown to include huge numbers of people without facts or evidence.”

The “border crisis” narrative is likely to persist until ORR can accommodate the rising numbers of unaccompanied children, and until processing and other capacity exist to allow a long overdue wind-down of Title 42. In the meantime, as the Washington Post and Politico noted, Republicans are seizing on immigration as their banner issue as they endeavor to win back congressional majorities in the 2022 midterm elections.

“Can we just agree not to use these human beings in front of us as political pawns?” Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House migrant shelter, told Politico. “Let’s just make sure they’re taken care of.”

Links

  • Don’t miss the 3,200-word explainer that WOLA published this week, covering the current moment for U.S. border policy and migration, and recommendations for what lies ahead.
  • Gen. Glen Vanherck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters that 3,500 National Guardsmen from 22 states remain deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border. That deployment is “100 percent of the forces” currently at the border, he said,  which implies that the regular military personnel deployed by President Trump in 2019 are no longer there. The troops are manning observation sites looking for border-crossers, using 24 UH-72 helicopters for aerial detection and monitoring, and helping to maintain CBP vehicles. DHS, Gen. Vanherck continued, has indicated it would like the military presence to continue after its next expiration date, the September 30 end of fiscal year 2021. (As noted in our February 26 update,  the military deployment was the subject of a detailed report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).)
  • The New York Times covers the fragments of half-built border wall scattered across wilderness areas as the Biden administration’s pause on barrier construction continues. The Palm Springs Desert Sun looks at segments of wall built at great cost in south-central California’s Jacumba wilderness.
  • The “La 72” migrant shelter, near the Guatemalan border in Tenosique, Mexico, attended to 2,836 people in the pandemic year 2020, according to its annual report released this week. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that “La 72” had already attended to 6,000 migrants so far in 2021.
  • The remains of 16 migrants massacred—probably by state police—on January 22 in Tamaulipas, Mexico, were returned to the migrants’ hometown of Comitancillo, San Marcos, Guatemala. That town, the Wall Street Journal reports, has sent many emigrants to Carthage, Mississippi, where a giant 2019 ICE raid of chicken processing plants caught up one of the murdered migrants, Édgar López, a longtime Carthage resident who was trying to return.
  • Border Patrol agent Alejandro Flores-Bañuelos, age 35, died on March 15 after being struck by a passing vehicle while assisting a traffic collision in southeast California’s El Centro sector.
  • NBC News reports that DHS is requiring that all inquiries to local Border Patrol personnel be routed through the press office in Washington, as was the policy during the Obama administration. Unnamed officials referred to it as a “gag order.”
  • Former Border Patrol agent Jenn Budd, a prominent critic of her former employer and its culture, believes that the agency is manufacturing a sense of crisis at the border right now. She contends that agents likely helped concoct a strange video, which appeared on CNN, depicting smugglers taking a boatload of migrants across the Rio Grande in broad daylight.

At wola.org: Putting the U.S.-Mexico ‘Border Crisis’ Narrative into Context

What’s happening at the border right now is concerning: there are bottlenecks in caring for unaccompanied minors. But it’s not a crisis. If anything, the crisis is in the large number of people who continue to be expelled, within hours, without a hearing.

Four of us at WOLA just published an explainer that I think is pretty good. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really read the whole thing, it’s got a lot of good graphics in it.

It may seem ironic, but even as it carried out the cruelest anti-migration policies in decades, the Trump administration presided over the largest flows of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-2000s. 

This continued through Donald Trump’s last months in office, which saw migration rise sharply even as stringent pandemic measures made the pursuit of asylum impossible. This shows the futility of declaring war on asylum, and the inevitability of large migration flows at a time of overlapping security, economic, political, public health, and climate crises.

The jump in migration of Trump’s final months continued accelerating during Joe Biden’s first two months in office. This is happening even as Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps in place “Title 42,” a probably illegal Trump-era pandemic provision that expels most migrants within hours, regardless of their protection needs.

Is there a “crisis” of people attempting to cross the border? 

The increased numbers of people crossing the border right now is something that border experts have predicted for some time now. The roots of what is happening are in the Trump administration policies that caused massive numbers of people to be stuck on the Mexican side of the border—policies like “Remain in Mexico” (which forced over 70,000 asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexico border cities) and “metering,” a practice under which U.S. border authorities place severe limits on who is allowed to approach ports of entry and ask for asylum, in violation of U.S. and international law. 

The increased border crossings was predictable, not because of Biden administration policies like winding down “Remain with Mexico,” but because of the dangers put in place by Trump’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence.

Of the 114 months since October 2011 for which WOLA has detailed monthly data, February 2021 saw the third-most Border Patrol encounters with migrants. (The actual number of people was probably much lower since, as noted below, many migrants expelled under Title 42 attempt to re-enter shortly afterward.)

While third-most sounds like a lot, the impact on border authorities’ workload is minimal because Title 42 persists. Of the 96,974 migrants whom Border Patrol “encountered” in February, it quickly expelled 72 percent—down only slightly from the end of the Trump administration, which expelled 85 percent in December and 83 percent in January. The remainder whom Border Patrol actually had to process last month—26,791 migrants—was the 77th most out of the past 114 months. Being in 77th place hardly constitutes a crisis.

There is a serious capacity issue right now, though, for one especially vulnerable category of migrant: children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. 

There’s more — read on at wola.org.

Colombia Peace Update: March 13, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

At least one child killed in March 2 bombing raid on FARC dissidents

An entry in the “Links” section of last week’s update noted that Colombia’s armed forces had reported “neutralizing” 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare, on March 2. (Guaviare, in south-central Colombia, is an agricultural frontier department with a history of armed group presence.) “Duarte,” once a mid-level FARC leader, had exited the peace process before the peace accord’s 2016 signing, and now leads the largest network of armed “dissidents.” Since at least January 2019, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has warned that Duarte’s group recruits many underage combatants.

On March 9 some left-leaning media, citing families and local human rights associations, began alleging that as many as 12 of those killed in the March 2 attack could have been children. As of March 12, one child was confirmed to have been killed at the dissidents’ site. A trusted source tells WOLA that two other children arrived wounded at the hospital in nearby San José del Guaviare municipality.

Danna Lizeth Montilla was 16 years old. Her father told El Tiempo that he had not seen his daughter since December 2020, when she left home in Puerto Cachicamo, a village in San José del Guaviare, to live with relatives at a site where a better internet signal might allow her to attend school during the pandemic. They lost contact with Danna in January. Her father feared that she had been recruited by an armed group. “It’s something that has become common,” he told El Tiempo. “But I never thought it would happen to my daughter.”

This is not the first time that child combatants have died in a bombing raid on dissidents. An August 2019 operation in the nearby municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, killed eight minors at an encampment—but the Defense Ministry failed to report that detail. When opposition senators revealed the deaths in November 2019, accusing a cover-up, the defense minister at the time, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign.

The current defense minister is not covering up the March 2 bombing outcome. Diego Molano acknowledged that children may have died, including Danna Lizeth Montilla, though the actual number is unknown since forensic investigations continue. He placed blame for what happened on the dissident groups recruiting children, and insisted that the armed forces, lacking intelligence indicating that children were present, carried out the March 2 operation in accordance with international humanitarian law.

While further investigation is needed to confirm that, legal experts interviewed in Colombian media agree that it’s possible the armed forces’ March 2 operation did not violate international humanitarian law. While IHL prohibits recruitment of children under 18, armed child recruits 15 or over may be considered combatants, or legitimate military targets, under some circumstances.

Minister Molano didn’t stop there, though. In interviews on March 9 and 10 he caused an uproar in Colombia, using language attacking the children themselves. Some examples:

  • “Even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.”
  • “We’re not talking about young people who didn’t know what they were doing.”
  • “It’s not like they were studying for their college entrance exams.”
  • “This operation targeted a narco-terrorist structure that uses young people to turn them into war machines.”

Criticisms of Molano’s statements poured out. “There’s no such thing as minors acting out of free will in an armed conflict,” said Javeriana University law professor Yadira Alarcón. “The war machine is the one that kills kids, minister,” opposition Senator Iván Cepeda wrote on Twitter. “This is a message of war against children, a message of war against the vulnerable populations that today are being victimized,” said prominent human rights defender Francia Márquez, one of 23 signers of a letter condemning Molano’s statements. “For the Minister of Defense, children aged 13, 14, and 16 have been turned into ‘war machines.’ It is very sad that kids are called that,” said Danna Lizeth Montilla’s father.

Indigenous community retains soldiers in Chocó

The commander of the Colombian Army’s 7th Division denounced on March 8 that members of an indigenous community disarmed, bound the hands of, and retained nine soldiers in Carmen de Atrato municipality, in Chocó department. (In Colombia’s northwest corner, Chocó is the country’s poorest department, and one of its most violent.) Government officials are vowing to pursue kidnapping charges against members of the local Indigenous Guard, a disciplined public order force—armed only with ceremonial staffs—that is common in many indigenous territories.

Details about the incident are confusing. Soldiers claim they were investigating shots fired near a main road. Indigenous Guard members in the El Consuelo Parte Baja community claim that the soldiers lacked recognizable insignia. Neither side alleges that force was used. On the next day (March 9), the community turned the nine soldiers over to a committee from the Defensoría.

The Army vowed to file criminal kidnapping charges against the Chocó indigenous leaders. President Iván Duque’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, voiced rage, telling El Tiempo: “Things must be called by their names. They were not detained, they were kidnapped! And those who did it should be condemned for that crime. They should be sentenced for that crime to prison terms between 40 and 45 years, the maximum that the penal code establishes for that case.”

Guarín, a longtime conservative security intellectual and columnist, sees a larger nationwide plot. “It is an unarmed violent mobilization—at least not with firearms, in most cases—that seeks to prevent the capture of criminals, the eradication of illicit crops, the destruction of drug processing laboratories, operations against the illicit extraction of minerals, and even the fight against organized armed groups’ structures.”

Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) rejected Guarín’s words, including allegations that the Chocó community engaged in kidnapping. ONIC’s peace and human rights counselor, Gustavo Vélez, told El Tiempo, “These people [soldiers] were not assaulted, they were not outraged, they were only held… They were taken to a place where they did not even go without water, and they were handed over to… the Defensoría.”

“As a national organization we categorically reject this type of assessment by Dr. Guarín,” Vélez continued, “because this type of assessment stigmatizes the Indigenous Guard, stigmatizes men and women who today are displaced and confined. At no time has the Indigenous Guard been used by armed actors for illegal purposes.”

Letter from UN rapporteurs on fumigation

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made public a December 17 letter from seven of its rapporteurs, urging the Colombian government not to restart a program that would eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

Between 1994 and 2015, with heavy U.S. support, contract pilots and Colombian police sprayed glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares of the country’s territory, achieving modest and quickly reversible reductions in coca cultivation. The program was suspended in 2015 after a World Health Organization study found glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While the Duque government is vowing to re-start fumigation, Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set several health, safety, consultation, and other requirements that the government must meet before doing so.

The December letter is signed by the UN rapporteurs for Toxic Substances, Afro-Descendant Communities, Environment, Food, Physical and Mental Health, Human Rights Defenders, and Indigenous Communities. It contends that resuming glyphosate fumigation would “carry enormous risks for human rights and the environment, while it will not comply with the conditions established by the Constitutional Court or international obligations.” It warns that renewed fumigation might violate the terms of the 2016 peace accord. It advises renouncing fumigation, and asks the government for information about compliance with the Constitutional Court’s requirements and other risk mitigation measures.

“The letter was sent after we in civil society requested that the rapporteurs activate this mechanism, and thus help restrain the Government’s insistent announcements about the possible resumption of the PECIG [glyphosate spray program],” notes a statement from the Colombian legal NGO DeJusticia and several other groups, including WOLA.

The Colombian government’s February 17 response to the UN rapporteurs also became public last week—and it was a flat refusal. Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations Adriana Mejía told the rapporteurs that their “urgent call…does not comply with the requirements set forth in the code of conduct governing the performance of your mandate.” In other words, that the rapporteurs were outside their proper lane, and thus would not get a response to their letter’s claims.

The UN letter was not the only public declaration last week in opposition to renewing fumigation. More than 150 academics from Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere signed a letter urging President Joe Biden “to reconsider your support for aerial spraying.” WOLA’s Adam Isacson published a column in El Espectador voicing hope that, once it becomes more consolidated with the addition of key officials, the Biden administration may be convinced to abandon the spray program.

For now, the fumigation program remains suspended. Defense Minister Molano, though, reiterated on March 2 that, with the Court’s conditions met, the program would restart in April. A judge in Nariño department, in southwest Colombia, continues to hold up a component of the restart with a finding that Afro-Descendant and indigenous communities must be consulted first. A government filing alleges that the judge’s “omissive” action runs counter to “maintaining national security.”

Links

  • President Duque held a rare meeting on March 10 with Comunes (ex-FARC) party leader Rodrigo Londoño to discuss protection of demobilized ex-combatants. On March 18, Londoño is to appear before the Truth Commission jointly with former top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is currently in an ICE facility in Georgia contesting his deportation, after serving a U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking. Meanwhile, in an eight-page document Londoño frankly discussed the Comunes party’s difficulty joining coalitions for the 2022 presidential and legislative elections, as well as divisions within the party.
  • U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a March 10 phone conversation with Defense Minister Molano and Presidential Chief of Staff Maria Paula Correa. According to the White House readout, topics covered included climate change, “a peaceful and negotiated outcome to” Venezuela’s crisis, peace accord implementation, and “the importance of upholding human rights.”
  • Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, sparked controversy with another in a series of public comments blaming Venezuelan migrants for some crime in the city. As the first woman and first LGBTI mayor of Bogotá, her words drew expressions of consternation from several of her center-left political allies.
  • A regular Universidad de los Andes poll of Colombian public opinion found that support for the FARC peace accord surpassed 50 percent for the first time—51 percent, up from 41 percent during a 2016 version of the poll.
  • The investigative website La Liga del Silencio reported that the Truth Commission had sent the Defense Ministry a letter last October noting that the armed forces had not responded satisfactorily to 38 different information requests submitted over the previous year. The Liga report reveals that a 2015 fire at a military facility destroyed 17 years of Army records in a major conflict region, the Magdalena Medio.
  • The Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), which since 2019 has been directed by a conservative disliked by much of the country’s human rights community, is again embroiled in controversy. It faces allegations that its leadership “drastically” censored the content of a museum exhibit that Center staff had developed with several indigenous groups’ participation and consent. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), citing indications of prior censorship from fifty witnesses, asked the CNMH to turn over e-mail communications between Director Darío Acevedo and the leadership of the historical memory museum effort.
  • Writing for Mongabay, Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses finds that Colombia’s military-led environmental protection campaign has done little to confront those most responsible for profiting from and financing Amazon basin deforestation, nor does it resolve land tenure issues that underlie the problem.

Weekly Border Update: March 12, 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. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal.

Border Patrol facilities filling with unaccompanied children

Numbers of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border rose in February to their highest level since May of 2019. Border Patrol apprehended 9,297 kids without adult accompaniment, up from 5,694 in January, while another 160 presented themselves at border ports of entry.

Media outlets with which CBP has shared preliminary March data, like CBS News, report that 3,500 more children were taken into U.S. custody during the first nine days of this month. Over the previous 21 days, CNN reported on March 10, U.S. border authorities had encountered an average of 435 unaccompanied kids per day, up from a 21-day average of 340 per day a week earlier.

Of the 9,297 unaccompanied kids apprehended in February, 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from all other countries.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The rate of increase of unaccompanied child arrivals is “unprecedented,” according to “veteran” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials cited in the Washington Post, who add that the influx has “the potential to be the largest in decades,” surpassing prior “waves” of unaccompanied children in 2014, 2016, and 2019. Indeed, of the 114 months for which WOLA has official data going back to October 2011, February 2021 was the fourth-heaviest month for apprehensions of unaccompanied children—and numbers tend to increase during the spring.

The increase isn’t made up entirely of children who fled Central America recently. The Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum, which included rapidly expelling unaccompanied children under a pandemic border-closure policy between March and November 2020, bottled up many who otherwise would have migrated last year. “These are kids who’ve been waiting at the border, in some cases for more than a year,” Jennifer Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense told the New Yorker. The Biden administration is still expelling most migrants—including asylum seekers—under the pandemic order, but it has refused to expel unaccompanied children.

A 2008 law requires that CBP and its Border Patrol agency must turn all unaccompanied minor migrants from non-contiguous countries (that means, other than Mexico) over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), which maintains a network of shelters around the country. ORR then endeavors to get the kids out of the shelters as quickly as possible, turning them over to relatives living in the United States (in 90 percent of cases) or other sponsors. Most non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied, then, seek to be apprehended after crossing the border.

Eventually, in a process slowed by backlogs, the children go to immigration court to seek asylum or other protection. Citing DHS statistics, the Washington Post reports that 52 percent of the 290,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border since 2014 still have cases pending. 28 percent have been granted humanitarian protection, 16 percent have been ordered to leave but it’s unclear whether they did, and 4.3 percent have been deported.

The ORR shelter system is near capacity right now, which means that Border Patrol—which must release the children to ORR within 72 hours—often has nowhere to put them. By March 8, the number of children in Border Patrol stations and detention facilities had risen to 3,250. Nearly 1,400 had been waiting in these facilities—austere holding cells designed for adult males—for more than the legal guideline of 72 hours. Of the 3,250, 169 were under the age of 13. Children are now spending an average of 107 hours in the grim Border Patrol holding cells, with 24-hour always-on lighting, that Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote in the Washington Post are “essentially police precincts with cement floors.”

Each day, according to the Post, an additional 500 or more children are arriving in CBP and Border Patrol custody, with nearly 700 on March 10. As of March 9, the refugee agency had just over 500 shelter beds available to accommodate them. ORR’s shelters usually hold about 13,200 children, but that number was reduced to about 8,000 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. This week, the shelter population grew to about 8,500 as ORR relaxed some of these measures.

ORR statistics cited in the Post show that 70 percent of the unaccompanied child population is male, and 75 percent are 15 to 17 years old. “HHS officials have told the White House that they need about 20,000 shelter beds to keep pace with the influx,” the same article reveals.

As it begins its eighth week, the Biden administration has been scrambling to keep up with accommodations for the children. This is complicated by the pandemic, but also by its inability to prepare before January 20. “Trump’s political appointees at HHS and DHS refused to meet with” Biden transition officials, the New Yorker reported, “deliberately sabotaging their ability to plan ahead, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.” Agencies are taking the following measures to speed up the throughput in ORR’s system, reducing the amount of time a child spends in its shelters from the current average of 30 to 40 days.

  • Working “aggressively” to release children to the custody of sponsors, including proposals to help pay some of the children’s travel costs.
  • Loosening or lifting COVID-19 precautions that had reduced shelters’ capacity.
  • Asking DHS personnel to volunteer to travel to the border and help with processing.
  • Looking for additional ORR “influx facilities” to hold children ages 13-17, where conditions are more austere than in the agency’s normal shelters but superior to CBP custody. One has opened in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and may hold up to 952 children. Other candidates include Moffett Federal Airfield, a NASA site in Google’s headquarters town of Mountain View, California; a facility in Homestead, Florida that drew controversy during the Trump administration due to poor conditions; and Fort Lee, a U.S. Army facility south of Richmond, Virginia.

On March 6, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a 13-person delegation of top officials from several agencies to the border. They visited the Carrizo Springs facility and a temporary CBP processing center in Donna, Texas, and presented recommendations to President Joe Biden after their return to Washington.

February migration numbers rise overall, even as pandemic “expulsions“ policy remains in place

Unaccompanied children are one of a small number of categories of migrants who stand any chance right now of being released into the United States to seek asylum or protection. Most migrants apprehended at the border get expelled, often within an hour or two, under a pandemic measure referred to as “Title 42” that the Trump administration instituted in March 2020 and the Biden administration has maintained.

In addition to unaccompanied children, the other exceptions to rapid expulsion appear to be:

  • A growing proportion of family unit members (parents with children) apprehended at the border: CBS News reports that nearly 60 percent of family members apprehended in February “were processed under U.S. immigration law, with many allowed to seek asylum or other forms of protection while in American communities.” The rest were expelled.
  • A tightly controlled stream of migrants who had been subject to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) policy. As of March 10, the White House reported that 1,400 MPP enrollees had been admitted into the United States to await their immigration court hearings. About 15,000 of a qualified population of over 25,000 had signed up for admission into the United States. The winding down of “Remain in Mexico” brought a happy bit of news: the closure of a squalid encampment of MPP enrollees in Matamoros, Mexico near the Brownsville, Texas border crossing. Though not all of the camp’s residents have been admitted yet, the number of those still waiting is small enough for shelters to accommodate them in Matamoros.

Migrants not in these categories, including many Haitian and Central American families, are still being expelled under Title 42. Still, U.S. authorities saw an increase in their encounters with all categories of migrants in February. Border Patrol encountered 96,974 migrants last month, up from 75,312 in January. CBP took another 3,467 into custody at ports of entry.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The 96,974 encounters were the most since May 2019, and the third-most in the 114 months since October 2011. 43 percent were from Mexico, 20 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 6 percent from El Salvador, and 12 percent from other countries.

  • 68,732 of those encountered were single adults. This was the most single adults for any month since October 2011 (we don’t have data breaking out adults before then). 57 percent were from Mexico, 17 percent from Guatemala, 12 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 10 percent from other countries.
    Nearly all single adults were expelled, and many reflected in this number are double- or triple-counted. CBP told CBS News that about 25,000 of migrants encountered in February had been caught before. The “recidivism rate”—the percentage of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before, expelled, and tried to cross again—was 38 percent in January, up from 7 percent in 2019.
  • 18,945 were members of family units. This was the most family unit members since August 2019 and the 12th largest monthly total since October 2011. As noted above, over 40 percent of these people were probably expelled. 47 percent were from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 9 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 21 percent from other countries.
  • As also noted above, 9,297 were unaccompanied children, the most since May 2019 and the 4th-most since October 2011. 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from other countries.

The rate of increase alarmed unnamed officials, cited in the Washington Post, who “described the surge as ‘overwhelming,’ ‘on fire’ and potentially larger than the 2019 crisis, when CBP took nearly 1 million migrants into custody.” So far in March, U.S. agents are detaining more than 4,200 people per day, which if sustained would rival the 132,856 apprehensions recorded in May 2019, which was the most in 13 years.

Mexico, too, is seeing an increase in migration: the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, has served 6,000 migrants so far this year, more than in all of 2020. The refugee agency COMAR received 13,513 requests to enter Mexico’s asylum system in January and February; if that rate is sustained, it will break COMAR’s request record set in 2019.

Overall, U.S. authorities expelled 72 percent of the migrants they encountered in February, under the Title 42 pandemic measure. That was down from 83 percent in January and 85 percent in December.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

55 percent of family unit members are being apprehended in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector. In order to balance out the caseload, CBP has begun flying some of those families elsewhere for processing. The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters reported that two planes per day, each carrying up to 135 migrants, have begun arriving in El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley. There, families would be processed, begin their asylum paperwork, and be turned over to Annunciation House, a respite center that gives them a place to stay for a few days while they make travel arrangements to the communities where they will live and go to immigration court.

At a March 10 White House briefing, Roberta Jacobson—a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is now the National Security Council’s southern border coordinator—repeatedly urged migrants not to come to the border right now, noting that Title 42 remains in force. She also acknowledged that migrant smugglers are likely capitalizing on the perception that the Biden administration will be more welcoming than its predecessor. While they say they intend to lift the pandemic measures and other Trump-era obstacles to asylum, Jacobson and other officials are asking for time to set up infrastructure for processing, alternatives to detention, and other needs. “We are… almost 50 days in,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are digging ourselves out of a broken and dismantled system.”

Republican leaders have ramped up their messaging about the increased migration numbers as evidence of a “Biden border crisis.” House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-California) plans to lead a delegation of Republicans to the border soon. “The border is breaking down as I speak,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News. “Immigration in 2022 [midterm legislative elections] will be a bigger issue than it was in 2016.” Trump’s former acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, co-authored a Fox News column alleging that the Democratic Party’s plan is to allow larger numbers of undocumented aliens to enter, give them citizenship and turn them into loyal voters.

Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has probably received the most attention by alleging that admissions of asylum seekers are spreading COVID-19. In fact, as the Associated Press reported, there is no evidence to back up that claim. As he sends up to 1,000 state police and Texas military forces to the border, Gov. Abbott is refusing the Biden administration’s offer of Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) money for Texas communities to provide COVID-19 testing for asylum-seeking migrants and to cover other costs associated with their arrival.

Links

  • As foreseen in an early February White House executive order, the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated the Central American Minors program. This Obama-era effort allowed nearly 5,000 children to apply within their own countries to migrate to join parents with legal status in the United States. The Trump administration abruptly canceled the program in 2017, stranding about 3,000 kids who had been approved for travel.
  • The Biden administration announced on March 8 that it will offer Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelan migrants living in the United States.
  • At her March 10 White House briefing, Amb. Roberta Jacobson addressed plans for a four-year, $4 billion aid package to Central America to address the “root causes” of migration. She noted that unlike prior aid packages, there would be an effort to steer aid away from corrupt government leaders and toward civil society, the private sector, and other reformers. That dovetails with the recommendation of former Obama White House official Dan Restrepo, who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “where corrupt governing elites are resistant to change, Washington should partner with civil society.”
  • The ACLU sent a letter to DHS Secretary Mayorkas detailing 13 administrative complaints about abuse committed by border agents, which the organization had filed with the DHS Inspector General between 2019 and 2020. None of the cases have moved.
  • Reuters reports on smugglers’ increasing use of color-coded wristbands to indicate that migrants traveling through Mexico and crossing the border have “paid for the right to transit through cartel territory.”
  • The Cato Institute obtained official data pointing to a 41 percent or greater increase in successful “illegal entries” of migrants—what Border Patrol calls “got-aways”—during the Trump administration. Border agents meanwhile told the Washington Post that they counted 1,000 got-aways in a single day in February.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas is testifying in the House Committee on Homeland Security on March 17.
  • In its four years, the Trump administration “filled two-thirds of the immigration courts’ 520 lifetime positions with judges who, as a whole, have disproportionately ordered deportation,” Reuters reveals.

The Biden administration and fumigation

Here is the English text of a column that ran today (March 10) in Colombia’s El Espectador.

The Biden administration and fumigation

by Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

“Why is Biden supporting fumigation? I’m so disappointed.” I heard this several times last week from friends in Colombia in the human rights, drug policy, and center-left political opposition communities. It seems they were expecting the new U.S. government to usher in a new era of drug policy in Colombia, and reality hit them in the face.

Their disappointment came mainly from two documents from the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. Congress requires the Department to certify that Colombia is following a strategy to eradicate 50 percent of its coca crop by 2023. It produced that document on February 23, with language celebrating that Iván Duque’s government has made “Significant progress…to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program” and that the late Minister of Defense “stated seven AT-802 spray planes were operationally ready to conduct aerial eradication.”

On March 2, the Department produced its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. That document laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

To many Colombians who have lived through 35 years of forced eradication with poor results, this language looks like doubling down on failure. It may even be viewed as endorsing the Duque government’s view that Colombia’s chronic violence is a result not of unpunished corruption and rural areas’ abandonment, but of the persistence of a bush.

I asked my Colombian colleagues when they ever heard a Biden official say, on the record, that they oppose forced coca eradication. Yes, some people close to Joe Biden were members of the bipartisan commission whose very good December report cites “enormous costs and dismal results” from forced eradication. But then-Senator Joe Biden supported eradication in 2000, when the Congress was considering Plan Colombia, both in a Senate floor speech and a report.

There’s no reason for shock, then, at the past two week’s reports. Still, I don’t advise pessimism. Perspectives change. Plan Colombia began 20 years ago, and the results against coca and cocaine are hardly encouraging.

There’s still ample room for hope that the Biden administration can bring about a historic change in the U.S. approach to coca. Rather than expanding forced eradication, many in the new President’s circle prefer to talk about state presence in territory, provision of services, implementing the peace accord, titling farmers’ land, and building roads. They want to work with a Colombian government that has the will to do the hard work of integrating the countryside into national life. (Whether the current Colombian government has that will is immaterial: it will only be in power for 17 more months.)

A new U.S. approach doesn’t happen with Inauguration Day. There is lag time: U.S. policies don’t change quickly, especially when the presidential transition is as chaotic as ours was. It’s been nearly seven weeks and many key U.S. officials haven’t been named yet. Who will be the new White House Drug Czar? Who will run counter-narcotics at the State Department? Who will run Western Hemisphere Affairs? Who will manage counter-narcotics at the Defense Department? We don’t know yet: this will take months more.

Because the new government is just starting, those two recent reports were “zombie” documents, written by Trump holdovers or career officials. We probably won’t see much change in May, when the Biden Administration, still building its staff, sends to Congress its request for 2022 foreign assistance.

By the second half of 2021, though, things need to start happening. Here is what I’d like to see.

By then, most political nominees to key positions should be in place. Many, if not most, should be reform-minded, not just caretakers.

I would really like to see a fundamental review of drug supply policy happen in late 2021 and early 2022, just as the Biden Administration puts together its foreign assistance request to Congress for 2023. By then, Colombia should be seeing the virus subside and preparing for the campaign for Duque’s successor.

2022 could be a very interesting year. Colombia will have a new government—perhaps one that doesn’t subscribe to the “fumigation will solve violence” view. The Biden government will be consolidated. The Democratic-majority Congress, with old-fashioned hardliners marginalized—will consider what might be a very different 2023 assistance request. There should be opportunities to dialogue with cautious moderates, and to dialogue with Colombian civil society. That’s a prominent request coming from several colleagues and I who accompany AMUNAFRO, la Asociación Nacional de Alcaldes de Municipios con Población Afrodescendientes: “un dialogo serio y profundo, que tenga a las comunidades afectadas como protagonista central,” porque “NO consideramos acertado insistir en lo mismo.”

I could be wrong—but I am optimistic. I’ve got my eye on that period between mid-2021 and late 2022. So I say to my friends in Colombia, don’t despair of the Biden government yet.

Colombia Peace Update: March 6, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Prosecutor asks to acquit Álvaro Uribe

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) recommended on March 5 that former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) not be prosecuted for allegations of witness tampering. The case had Uribe, the founder of President Iván Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, under house arrest between August and October. It now goes to a judge, whose decision about whether to drop charges is certain to be appealed.

Here is a quick overview of what has happened:

  • In 2012 ex-president Uribe accused a political opponent, then-representative Iván Cepeda, of visiting imprisoned former paramilitary leaders and bribing them to give false evidence tying Uribe to paramilitary groups. Cepeda, whose senator father was killed in 1994 by paramilitaries working with an official who would take a leading position in Uribe’s presidential intelligence service, was investigating Uribe’s possible links to the rightwing armed groups.
  • Because the accusation was against a sitting member of Congress (Rep. Cepeda later became a senator, along with Uribe, in 2014), Colombia’s Supreme Court took up the case investigation.
  • In 2018, the Supreme Court determined that Iván Cepeda had neither paid nor pressured the former paramilitaries with whom he had met, exonerating him. Instead, in a bombshell finding, the Court turned the tables and announced it would be investigating Álvaro Uribe and his attorney for “procedural fraud and bribery”: essentially, offering bribes to a cast of characters of minor ex-paramilitaries in exchange for false testimony. The charges could carry a prison term of up to 12 years.
  • On August 12, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered Senator Álvaro Uribe placed under house arrest at his ranch in Córdoba. It issued a 1,500-page document laying out evidence against Uribe and his attorney, Diego Cadena, including videos, audios, intercepts, and WhatsApp transcripts. A February 28 column by investigative journalist Daniel Coronell recalls some of the incriminating conversations.
  • On August 18, Uribe resigned his Senate seat, which placed him outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. On September 3, the Supreme Court handed the case over to the Fiscalía, which since January 2020 has been headed by Francisco Barbosa, a friend of Iván Duque’s since college. The Fiscalía had six months to decide whether to proceed with the case, a term that expired last week. The prosecutor put in charge of the case, Gabriel Jaimes, had worked in the past as “right-hand man” for one of the most conservative figures in Colombian politics, former inspector-general, current OAS Ambassador, and Uribe supporter Alejandro Ordóñez.
  • Uribe was released from house arrest on October 10.
  • On March 5, Gabriel Jaimes asked the judiciary to terminate (or “preclude”) the investigation against Álvaro Uribe, writing that Uribe’s conduct didn’t “have the characteristic of crime,” and that any crimes that may have been committed didn’t involve Uribe.

“Thank God for this positive step,” Uribe tweeted. Uribe’s attorney Jaime Granados, who has defended several politicians and military officers accused of human rights crimes, told media that Jaimes’s request to drop the case “was the only possible conclusion the investigators could reach.”

Sen. Iván Cepeda retorted that “Prosecutor Jaimes practically became Uribe’s lawyer… the positions of the Prosecutor’s Office are a mirror of Uribe’s arguments and his defense.” Cepeda’s attorney, Reinaldo Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, called Jaimes’s decision “reckless. The road to impunity continues its course, but it can be stopped, we hope, by the judges of the Republic.”

The prosecutor’s request to drop the case must now go before a judge, which is supposed to happen within five business days but may take longer. If the judge grants the request to end the investigation, Sen. Cepeda—who is classified as a “victim” in this case—can appeal it. If the judge finds that the investigation should continue, the Fiscalía can appeal it.

An appeal will take months. If the appeals judge agrees with the Fiscalía, then the Uribe case is over. If the appeals judge finds ground to continue Uribe’s prosecution, then the Fiscalía must either come up with new arguments (out of a short list of allowed arguments) to drop the case, forcing the courts to do this all over again—or it must prosecute Álvaro Uribe, apparently against its prosecutors’ will.

The Uribe case is likely to drag on, then, for many more months, steadily overlapping the campaign for Colombia’s March 2022 presidential elections.

Illicit crop eradication the subject of several notable new documents

Two State Department reports that became public last week congratulated Colombia’s government for its aggressive approach to illicit crop eradication and its movement toward reinstating a controversial program to eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

On February 23, the State Department delivered to Congress a required report, which became public on March 1, certifying that Colombia is following a strategy to cut coca production by 50 percent by 2023. This document notes a “historic level of manual eradication despite challenges from the COVID-19, a dramatic increase in coca grower protests opposing manual eradication, and a rise in violent attacks against eradicators. Significant progress has also been made to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program that meets the administrative and oversight requirements established by the Colombian constitutional court.” (Colombia suspended aerial herbicide eradication in 2015, citing public health concerns.)

On March 2, the Department issued its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a global overview. Its Colombia section laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

Both documents came as a surprise to some Colombian analysts who expected the Biden administration to adopt the more critical approach to forced eradication laid out in the December report of a bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. That body, whose members included some individuals considered close to the new administration, wrote that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Even if it does intend to adopt such a new tone on eradication, the six-week-old Biden administration, which still lacks officials in many key positions, may not yet have the bandwidth to do so.

Five documents issued since February 26 are sharply critical of the U.S. and Colombian governments’ current approach to coca. All conclude that forced eradication, especially when not paired with alternatives, exacerbates violence and weakens governance in rural areas that badly need it.

  1. A February 26 research report from the International Crisis Group found that “security operations that pay far greater heed to the need to protect civilians and invigorate rural reforms would be more effective.” Principal author Elizabeth Dickinson presented her findings at a joint event with WOLA on March 5, and in a column at NPR that same day.
  2. 22 U.S. and international civil society organizations, including WOLA, sent a March 1 letter to President Biden encouraging him to make implementation of the 2016 peace accord a central tenet of U.S. policy toward Colombia. “We urge the United States not to restart the aerial spraying program, which will be seen as undermining the accords and will drive farmers and communities away from cooperating,” the letter reads.
  3. A multimedia series published on March 1 by El Espectador, “The Battle to Substitute Coca,” tells the story of post-peace accord eradication and crop substitution from the perspective of San José del Fragua, a municipality in Caquetá. It thoroughly explores the complexities surrounding the increasingly frustrating experience of the peace accords’ neglected crop substitution program.
  4. Also in El Espectador, Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published a March 4 column arguing that aerial fumigation “is condemned to failure and will increase violence and set the country aflame.”
  5. Longtime drug policy scholar Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz published a detailed paper that he had written in 2020 to inform the work of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. (English here.) Garzón found that “the current approach by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the right one; however, in practice it has come up against the inertia of anti-drug policy, in which the reduction in coca crops—measured in number of hectares eradicated—is considered the main indicator of success.” He adds, “The image of a plane spraying hectares of coca is useful to show that the state is acting rigorously and promptly, but it clearly falls short if the goal is to create fundamental change. The benefits of this tool are limited to the very short term, while the costs in terms of state legitimacy and the relationship with local communities last a very long time.”

The JEP rejects two “para-politicians” and keeps one

A small number of civilian leaders serving criminal sentences since the 2000s for supporting paramilitary groups—so-called “para-politicians”—has agreed to cooperate with the post-conflict transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). This week, the case of one advanced, while the post-conflict tribunal is kicking out two others.

Álvaro “El Gordo” García was a senator and powerful political boss from Sucre, a small department on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It is among the poorest third of the country’s 32 departments. García was sentenced to 40 years in prison for helping to organize the AUC paramilitary confederation’s bloc in the Montes de María region, which carried out some of the bloodiest massacres of the entire conflict during this century’s first years. The JEP is trying Sen. García, who directed the 2000 Macayepo massacre, as a paramilitary member—not as a third-party supporter.

The JEP has agreed to take García’s case, which could earn him a shorter sentence under non-prison conditions, as long as he tells the full truth about what happened in the Montes de María and provides reparations to his victims. If he reveals what he knows, La Silla Vacía reports, García could take down with him a large number of people. “Nothing moved in Sucre without ‘Gordo’ knowing about it. If he starts to tell everything he knows, there will be no one left with a head,” a “person who worked in politics with Garcia for several years” told the investigative website. “Those guys (the paramilitaries) took over the department and the municipalities with the complacency of the police, the DAS [disbanded presidential intelligence agency], the Fiscalía and the judges,” added “a politician who was in office during those years.” For now, “El Gordo” García remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison.

Another Sucre politician from that era is on the verge of being ejected from the JEP’s jurisdiction. Salvador Arana was the department’s governor during the early 2000s, then went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Chile before the justice system caught up with him and found him guilty of colluding with paramilitaries, including to kill political rivals. The JEP has refused to release Arana from his Barranquilla prison pending trial, and last week threatened to suspend him from the transitional justice system within 30 days if he failed to show more commitment to tell the truth and recognize his victims. So far, the JEP contends, Arana “has simply accused the victims of being collaborators of the FARC, of administrative corruption, and of manipulating witnesses.”

A third “para-politician” is out: Ramiro Suárez Corzo, the 2003-07 mayor of the busy Venezuelan border city of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, has been ejected from the JEP’s purview after three years, and will not get an opportunity for a lighter sentence. Like Arana, Suárez has been in prison for colluding with paramilitaries, who killed at least one of his political rivals. Like Arana, the JEP accuses him of failing to make significant new contributions to the truth about his case, instead denying his guilt and accusing his accusers.

Links

  • WOLA is pleased to launch a new multimedia resource and toolkit for protecting Colombia’s threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. Visit our Con Líderes Hay Paz campaign.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update summarizes numerous alarming cases brought to our attention in recent weeks.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) plays an important role in the Urabá region of northwestern Colombia, where paramilitaries displaced thousands of farmers during the conflict, and large-scale farmers appropriated their land. El Espectador and Verdad Abierta revealed that the new Defensoría representative in Urabá, José Augusto Rendón, is a lawyer who aggressively defended the region’s new landowners against victims’ efforts at land restitution. On several occasions Rendón predicted that violence would result if victims got their land back. Several national human rights organizations received the nomination “with absolute bewilderment and dismay.”
  • The latest bimonthly Invamer Gallup poll of urban Colombian public opinion shows only 6 percent of respondents believing that the security situation is improving, tied for a record low along a time series going back to 2008. President Iván Duque’s approval rating remains at 36 percent, where it was two months ago. By a two-to-one margin, respondents opposed Duque’s offer of legal status to Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, which was well received internationally.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano reported that the armed forces killed (or in his term, “neutralized”) 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte” by bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare.
  • The Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which as noted above saw horrific massacres during the 2000s, was relatively peaceful in the 2010s. Troublingly, El Espectador and the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris published reports from the region documenting an increase in threats against social leaders and indications that paramilitary-descended “Gulf Clan” is making inroads.
Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.