Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Weekly Border Update: July 30, 2021

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

July migration appears to be exceeding June

Only twice in this century has migration at the U.S.-Mexico border been greater in the summer than in the spring. On both of those occasions, migration was recovering from a sharp drop earlier in the year: after the January 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, and after the March 2020 imposition of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

2021 appears to be the first time this century that summer migration may exceed spring without an early-year reduction, despite the harsh heat along most of the border during the season’s height. This was foreseeable, as COVID-19 has devastated economies, border closures had stifled migration, and travel restrictions worldwide are gradually lifting. Still, in the past 22 years for which we have monthly data, we have not seen this pattern before.

Border Patrol’s encounters with migrants in July are “projected to be even higher” than June, according to preliminary data shared with the Washington Post. This past week, reporting about the summer increase has focused on Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Rio Grande Valley sector, the easternmost segment of the border, in south Texas. (CBP divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors.) There, Border Patrol Sector Chief Brian Hastings tweeted on July 25 that agents had apprehended more than 20,000 “illegally present migrants” during the previous week alone.

As of July 26, Border Patrol was holding about 14,000 migrants in its stations and processing facilities border-wide, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported. On the 25th, in the Rio Grande Valley, the agency was holding 7,000 migrants, up from 5,000 on July 19 and 3,500 on July 14. Border Patrol facilities’ capacity in the sector is about 3,000.

As of July 28, 2,246 of those in Border Patrol custody were unaccompanied children, up from 724 on July 12. This number of children in the agency’s rustic, jail-like facilities rarely exceeded 1,000 in June. That month, as the law requires, Border Patrol agents were able to move kids within 72 hours into shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As of June 30, children were spending an average of 28 hours in CBP custody; the stay is almost certainly longer now.

This is due to a steady increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children, to levels not seen since late March. Border Patrol encountered an average of 501 children per day between July 25 and 28, and 547 per day the previous week. We had not seen an average over 500 since March 23-25, the first few days for which CBP and HHS started providing daily numbers of unaccompanied children.

Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol agents are apprehending large groups of kids, adults, and families all at once. On July 27, agents encountered a single group of 509 people, mostly families and unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela. It was the largest group encountered all year. Along the Rio Grande, where periodic flooding and currents make it impossible to build fencing on the water’s edge, migrants who want U.S. authorities to apprehend them gather on the riverbank south of the border fence. Once on U.S. soil, they have the right to ask for asylum or other protection in the United States. 

Migrant detention and processing duties have strained Border Patrol personnel to the extent that the agency was contemplating shutting down some interior highway checkpoints—a move that requires approval from CBP headquarters in Washington, which has not been forthcoming, the Monitor reported.

The large numbers have also strained capacities at the Rio Grande Valley’s largest humanitarian respite center, the Catholic Charities facility in McAllen, Texas. The respite center gives asylum-seeking migrant families a place to be—instead of out on McAllen’s streets—between their release from CBP custody and their travel to destinations elsewhere in the United States, where immigration courts will adjudicate their cases.

Late on July 26, the respite center had to close its doors to new migrants, as it had hit its 1,200-person capacity. Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said she had to ask Border Patrol “to hold drop-offs to give us a chance to have space.” Still, agents kept dropping new busloads of migrants off on the street outside, and other area churches took in several hundred people. By July 28, Pimentel told the Monitor, the shelter was no longer at capacity.

Richard Cortez, who serves as county judge in Hidalgo—one of the Rio Grande Valley’s three counties, which includes McAllen—called on the federal government to “stop releasing these migrants into our communities” and on the governor of Texas to allow him to reinstate a mask mandate and other COVID-19 measures. “It was manageable last week, we did not have problems at all that I was aware of,” Cortez said on July 27. “Now, my understanding is that the Catholic Charities—who was taking over the responsibility of testing the immigrants, isolated them if they tested positive, they put them in the hospital if they were very sick…reached their capacity. So now there’s no buffer between the federal agencies and us.”

In June, the Rio Grande Valley accounted for one-third of Border Patrol migrant encounters along the border, and 56 percent of all encounters with child and family migrants. We don’t know yet whether Border Patrol’s other eight sectors are seeing a similar July increase in migration, though Tucson, Arizona, the fourth-busiest sector in June, has also begun to register large groups.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district stretches along the border from Laredo nearly to McAllen, told Axios that, between July 19 and July 26, Border Patrol had released 7,300 migrants in the Rio Grande Valley sector without specific dates to appear in immigration court. In order to cut processing time, agents are issuing a document that instructs migrants to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within 60 days, at which point their asylum or protection processes will begin. Officials told the New York Times that about 50,000 of these “notice to report” documents have been issued to migrants since March 19. Axios noted that just 6,700 have reported to ICE offices so far, while 16,000 have not shown up within the 60-day reporting window. About 27,000 more haven’t hit the deadline yet. In many cases, no-shows may owe to migrants’ confusion about the process.

Republican senators raised this “notice to report” issue to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who testified at a July 27 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The Secretary’s testimony coincided with the White House’s release of a fact sheet laying out a “Blueprint for a Fair, Orderly and Humane Immigration System.” That document, which contained little new information, declares, t “We will always be a nation of borders, and we will enforce our immigration laws in a way that is fair and just. We will continue to work to fortify an orderly immigration system.”

With an increase in migration, and the “Title 42” pandemic border policy (discussed below) making it harder to seek asylum, more migrants are traveling through dangerous sections of the border zone where, by Border Patrol’s conservative estimates, 8,258 people have been found dead of dehydration, exposure, and other causes since 1998. (See our July 16 update for a fuller discussion of migrant deaths.) In the Big Bend sector wilderness of west Texas, Border Patrol has found 32 remains of migrants so far in fiscal 2021, way up from 15 in all of 2020 and far more than the sector’s prior high of 10 (2018).

More migrants appear to be on their way, as COVID-19 travel restrictions begin to relax worldwide. Right now, at least 9,000 northbound migrants from Haiti and several other countries are stranded in the town of Necoclí, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They aren’t being blocked: it’s just that their numbers have overwhelmed the ferry service that takes them to the opposite shore of the Gulf of Urabá, where they cross into Panama. Colombia lifted its pandemic border closures in May, and migration numbers jumped soon afterward.

Title 42 is not being lifted for families

Our July 6 update, which reflected media reporting at the time, noted that the “Title 42” pandemic measure “may be in its last days,” at least for migrant families. While no official had confirmed it, reporting indicated that Title 42 would stop applying to families by the end of July. That is not going to happen: the administration, citing concern over new COVID-19 variants and rising overall numbers, will continue to expel protection-seeking families.

Title 42 is the name given to an old law that the Trump administration’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) invoked, in March 2020, to rapidly expel nearly all migrants encountered at the border back to Mexico or their home countries, usually without a chance to ask for asylum. Most citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras get expelled into Mexico, as do migrants from other countries who have tourist visas or other migratory status in Mexico.

The Biden administration kept Title 42 in place, though it has not applied it to unaccompanied children and rarely applies it to those who can’t easily be expelled to Mexico. Fewer family members have been expelled in recent months—16 percent of all who were encountered in June—in part because Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas is refusing expulsions of families with small children, and in part because since May, nearly half of families have come from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

While the COVID-19 virus’s Delta variant is a key factor leading the CDC to prolong Title 42, two U.S. officials told NBC News that the Biden administration is also “concerned about funding, facilities and staffing issues associated with lifting the restrictions.” Six months in, the administration still lacks capacity to process large numbers of asylum seekers, enroll them in alternatives-to-detention programs, and adjudicate their protection claims.

“If CDC is going to continue with Title 42, they need to be prepared for a lawsuit and to answer very specific questions in a deposition about whether they genuinely believed there was no way to process asylum seekers safely,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who has led an ongoing lawsuit against Title 42’s application to families, told the Washington Post.

A July 28 report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) disputes CDC claims that there is any public-health justification for expelling migrants. “Every aspect of the expulsion process, such as holding people in crowded conditions for days without testing and then transporting them in crowded vehicles, increases the risk of spreading and being exposed to COVID-19,” it reads. PHR researchers’ interviews with 28 expelled asylum seekers told of suffering “gratuitously cruel” treatment and family separations at the hands of Border Patrol agents, and assault, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual violence, along with shakedowns from Mexican authorities, after being expelled into Mexico.

On the night of July 26, DHS announced that it would resume applying “expedited removal” to migrant families who are not expelled under Title 42. As many family members as possible who don’t express fear of returning will be flown back to their home countries very quickly. Those who do express fear, in many cases, may be held in CBP custody until they can get fast-tracked “credible fear” interviews with asylum officers. (According to the 1997 Flores Settlement agreement, as revised, families with children cannot be held in custody for more than three weeks.)

Those who pass these interviews will likely be released with dates to appear in immigration court. Those who do not will be deported. A current and a former official told the Washington Post that deported families will be flown “back to Central America using the Electronic Nationality Verification program, which relies on biometric data to identify migrants who lack identification or travel documents.”

The expedited removal decision caused an outcry among rights advocates. “Jamming desperate families through an expedited asylum process would deny them the most basic due process protections and can hardly be called humane,” the ACLU’s Gelernt told the New York Times.

In an agreement with ACLU and plaintiffs in the ongoing suit against Title 42’s application to families, DHS had been permitting about 250-300 expelled family members considered “most vulnerable” to re-enter the United States from Mexican border towns to pursue their asylum petitions. However, CBP officials in San Diego started cancelling these appointments late during the week of July 18, citing capacity issues at the port of entry. Attorneys at Al Otro Lado, an organization that assists migrants in Tijuana and San Diego, said that several of their clients ended up homeless in Tijuana after CBP abruptly canceled their appointments.

Texas governor’s crackdown threatens to snare humanitarian workers

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has already declared an “emergency” in some counties, hosted Donald Trump at the border, and sought to build segments of state border wall, continues to push back hard against migration.

As of July 29, his state was jailing 55 migrants, arrested on trespassing charges, in the Briscoe prison in the town of Dilley, between Laredo and San Antonio. That’s up from three on July 20. The Briscoe facility can hold more than 950 people; all of those jailed so far have been single adult men.

On July 27 Abbott expanded powers of Texas National Guard personnel whom he has deployed to the border, giving them the ability to arrest civilians. It is very unusual in the United States for military personnel to be empowered to carry out arrests on U.S. soil, a circumstance usually limited only to riots and insurrections, and then only for a brief time.

(Other states with Republican governors have sent small contingents of guardsmen or police to the border in response to a call from Abbott. On July 26 South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who controversially is paying for her state’s Guard deployment with a private donor’s money, gave remarks in front of a section of border wall behind a Whataburger fast-food restaurant near the Hidalgo-Reynosa border bridge. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) defended a two-week deployment of state police as “the right thing to do” and said she wanted to renew it. Elsewhere, Nebraska state troopers returned from a 24-day tour affected by the desperate conditions of the children and families they encountered.)

On July 28 Gov. Abbott upped the ante, issuing an order prohibiting anyone except law enforcement personnel from transporting migrants who “pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 into Texas communities.” As a result of this order, if personnel from Texas’s Department of Public Safety (presumably through profiling) suspect that a civilian vehicle is transporting migrants released from CBP custody, they may reroute the vehicle to its place of origin and impound it. 

This order falls heaviest on humanitarian workers: those, like volunteers at Sister Norma Pimentel’s Catholic Charities respite center, who need to transport asylum seekers to airports, overflow facilities, or quarantine hotels. It is unclear whether Abbott’s order would apply to Greyhound and other bus companies that transport migrants from border towns to their destinations elsewhere in the United States. “I assume, if you’re Greyhound or somebody that’s transporting people from the respite center on behalf of Sister Norma, (they’re) going to be prohibited from doing that,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor.

Abbot issued his order as Rio Grande Valley counties are recording some of their worst infection numbers in months, as the Delta variant spreads. Still, as of mid-July the COVID-19 test positivity rate for migrants was below that of Texans as a whole, and more than 85 percent of migrants are reportedly getting vaccinated upon release. In one example of how humanitarian organizations are screening migrants for COVID-19, the Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen  performs COVID-19 tests on all migrants whom CBP drops off at its doors, at the expense of the McAllen city government. Additionally, Catholic Charities is paying more than 10 area hotels to house migrants who must be quarantined if they test positive. The respite center’s executive director has said that about 1,000 people are currently being housed in hotels—not all are COVID-positive, but some members of their family groups are—where they are required to stay, with volunteers delivering food and other needs, until they test negative.

On July 29 Attorney General Merrick Garland sent a letter to Gov. Abbott demanding that he reverse his transportation order, calling it “both dangerous and unlawful.” It notes, “The Order violates federal law in numerous respects, and Texas cannot lawfully enforce the Executive Order against any federal official or private parties working with the United States.” Garland promises that the Justice Department will “pursue all appropriate legal remedies to ensure that Texas does not interfere with the functions of the federal government.”

Links

  • A Mexican federal court has temporarily stayed municipal authorities’ order to evict the 14-year-old Senda de Vida shelter, the largest in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Citing Rio Grande waterway requirements, the mayor’s office had given the shelter and its 600 occupants days to vacate the site, in one of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities.
  • A Mexican man died of head injuries after falling from a new 30-foot segment of border wall in Otay Mesa, just east of San Diego, on July 25.
  • A second Government Accountability Project whistleblower complaint includes new revelations of deplorable conditions at the private contractor-managed HHS emergency child migrant shelter at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas. Conditions included “riots” in boys’ tents, children cutting themselves, hundreds of COVID cases, and severe shortages of basic goods like face masks and underwear. One mental health clinician reportedly told a boy “he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given.”
  • Another report from the DHS Inspector General finds serious deficiencies in border and migration agencies’ attention to detainees’ medical needs. “Once an individual is in custody,” it finds, “CBP agents and officers are required to conduct health interviews and ‘regular and frequent’ welfare checks to identify individuals who may be experiencing serious medical conditions. However, CBP could not always demonstrate staff conducted required medical screenings or consistent welfare checks for all 98 individuals whose medical cases we reviewed.“
  • DHS announced it is canceling contracts to use 2020 Homeland Security appropriations money to build about 31 miles of border wall in and near downtown Laredo, Texas. The Trump administration’s wall-building project had been bitterly opposed by local leaders. A year ago, the city council had unanimously approved the painting of a giant “Defund the Wall” mural on a main street.
  • The White House issued a document outlining its strategy for addressing the root causes of migration in Central America, as foreseen in a February 2 presidential executive order. It covers cooperation on economic issues, corruption and governance, human rights, preventing criminal violence, and preventing domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence.
  • The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff profiles Eriberto Pop, a Guatemalan lawyer working to track down parents whom the Trump administration separated from about children. About 275 parents remain to be located. This involves a lot of riding a motorcycle around remote areas of Guatemala’s rural highlands.
  • El Diario de Juárez documents the experience of migrants from Ecuador, about half of whom have been encountered across from Ciudad Juárez in Border Patrol’s El Paso sector. “According to the Ecuadorian migrants themselves, the ‘coyoteros,’ as they call human smugglers in that country, fly them as tourists to Mexico City or Cancun, from where they are taken to Ciudad Juarez.”
  • ProPublica’s Dara Lind finds that ICEprosecutors are still seeking maximum deportations in immigration court, ignoring Biden administration guidance “to postpone or drop cases against immigrants judged to pose little threat to public safety.”
  • House of Representatives Republican leadership introduced legislation that would restore much of the Trump administration’s border and migration policies, including a restart of border wall construction.

Why does Honduras have a military in 2021?

U.S. Southern Command’s online magazine yesterday ran an interview with the general who heads the Honduran armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. The article is headlined “Honduran Armed Forces in the Fight Against Crime.”

Gen. Tito Moreno lists the following missions currently occupying his military:

  • fighting against organized crime
  • fighting against narcotrafficking
  • fighting against common crime
  • aerial drug interdiction and “destruction of clandestine landing areas”
  • countering illicit activities in border areas
  • rescuing people in cases of natural disaster

Honduras, a poor and unequal country that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” maintains a military at no small cost in resources ($280 million in 2017), human rights, and political involvement. But do any of these roles require the maintenance of a military?

  • fighting against organized crime or narcotrafficking: military tactics only necessary if the country has allowed the situation to deteriorate to the extent to which civilian police are “outgunned”
  • fighting against common crime: this is the foundational role of a civilian police force, and is not a military role
  • aerial drug interdiction: could be performed by either an air force or a police air wing
  • countering illicit activities in border areas: elsewhere, frequently performed by police, civilian border patrols or gendarmes
  • natural disaster search and rescue: could be performed by a civilian emergency corps, though militaries are often the only institution with inactive assets, like helicopters and personnel, that can be “surged” in a disaster

Notably missing from Gen. Moreno’s list is “defending against external aggression” or “combating internal insurgents.” That makes sense, since Honduras faces no credible scenarios in either category right now.

“The Honduran armed forces are still undergoing a crisis of identity and cannot decide whether their role is to defend territorial sovereignty and integrity, protect the state from real or fictitious threats, or else continue performing law-enforcement duties,” the most cited of Honduran civil-military analysts, Leticia Salomón, wrote in 2012, three years after a coup in which Honduras’s military played a central role. The above list indicates that nothing has changed since then.

Two of Honduras’s neighbors, Costa Rica and Panama (which both have Freedom House scores as high—or higher—than that of the United States), confront these threats with police forces that are better trained and resourced than Honduras’s. While those forces have units that occasionally use heavier weapons, particularly near coasts and borders, they retain their civilian character and are not significant political actors.

The interview at Southcom’s magazine fails to make the case for maintaining a military in a small country like Honduras, with few traditional defense threats and enormous development and democratic deficits.

Preferring endless war to reform—abroad and at home

Jacqueline Hazelton, author of the new book Ballots not Bullets, argues that elites facing insurgents often prefer to live with the insurgency than to implement reforms, like democratization, having the rule of law apply to them, or income distribution. After all, such reforms are a loser deal for them: they reduce prerogatives and their ability to profit from corruption.

If pressed to carry out reforms (as the United States often does when propping up elites with counterinsurgency aid), the elites will go through the motions. They’ll agree to the reforms, but they’ll fail to implement them. That means stringing everyone along, often for years.

The insistence that good-governance reforms is the path to keeping a partner regime in power—let alone that democratization, modernization, and liberalization are crucial to its long-term stability—sets an unachievable political objective. It also makes interventions last longer, as elites find ways to affirm (and reaffirm and reaffirm) their commitment to reforms they never intend to fully implement. And because the counterinsurgency doctrine expects victory when—and perhaps only when—those reforms are implemented, the intervening power winds up in a particularly bloody version of Waiting for Godot.

This sounds a lot like Colombia, where elites promise reforms—land restitution, peace accord commitments, territorial stabilization, protecting social leaders, innumerable pacts signed with protesting communities—then invariably drag their feet.

If Hazelton is right, then, what are the options? I haven’t read her book, so I can’t tell whether the conclusion is “prop up authoritarian elites for stability, Cold War-style” or “abandon the whole notion of counterinsurgency aid even if it means regime failure.”

For a country like Colombia or Honduras, both of those choices, at least in the short term, would weaken governance even further, and that would increase migrants and illicit drug supplies in the United States. The U.S. political system has proved unable to deal sanely with either migration or drugs—in fact, a rise in either brings political freakouts and pressure for crackdowns at home. So most U.S. leaders would rather not have their domestic agendas derailed by that.

The result is a feedback loop between bad domestic policy and bad counterinsurgency policy. Local elites are willing to tolerate some insurgency in order to keep their prerogatives. And U.S. political leaders are willing to tolerate some counterinsurgent governance half-measures if they keep issues like drugs and migration at “manageable” levels.

Of course, messy counterinsurgency doesn’t do that—not in the long term at least. Perhaps a lot of the solution is about domestic politics: what we choose to freak out about. If we sought to manage migration and drug use—recognizing, with policies ranging from temporary work visas to harm reduction, realities that have been with us for more than half a century—the feedback loop could finally break.

Weekly Border Update: July 23, 2021

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

Key trends from June migration data

On July 16, just after we posted last week’s update, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) published statistics detailing its encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of June 2021. The agency reported a 4.5 percent increase in migrant “encounters” from May to June. As we noted last week, this is only the third time this century that migration in the scorching-hot month of June has increased over May.

In all, 188,829 migrants were “encountered” in June: 10,413 at the official land ports of entry, and 178,416 between the ports of entry where Border Patrol operates. This would appear to be the fifth-largest monthly total this century, and the most since 2000.

However, pandemic border measures in effect since the Trump administration have complicated comparisons. The “Title 42” policy, under which most undocumented migrants are swiftly expelled, usually into Mexico (104,907 times in June), has greatly eased repeat attempts to cross the border, so there is a lot of double, triple, and quadruple-counting. “Being expelled carries no legal consequences, so many people try to cross multiple times,” the Associated Press explains.

A large number of “encountered” migrants—34 percent of them in June—are so-called “recidivists”: individuals whom CBP has already encountered in fiscal 2021. (This is a very high recidivism rate: according to CBP’s 2022 budget request, this rate was 12 percent in 2016, 11 percent in 2017 and 2018, 7 percent in 2019, then jumped to 26 percent in 2020.)

With so many repeat crossers, the actual number of people crossing the border is far smaller—in fact, much smaller than we had expected. CBP’s release accompanying the June migration numbers explains, “The number of unique new encounters in June 2021 was 123,838. [That is far less than 188,829.] The number of unique individuals encountered to date during the fiscal year is 454,944 compared to 489,760 during the same time period in 2019.”

If that last sentence is truly accurate, then the number of individual migrants so far this year is less than half the number of encounters (1,119,204), and fewer than it was at this point in 2019. Here is that remarkable data point expressed as a graphic:

When Border Patrol encountered migrants between the ports of entry, it used Title 42 authority to expel them 58 percent of the time, the lowest percentage since the pandemic measures went into place.

When those migrants were single adults, Title 42 expulsions happened 84 percent of the time, down from over 90 percent during the Trump years. As most “recidivist” border crossers are single adults, this population has grown nearly fivefold since Title 42 went into place. June 2021 was, however, the first time since the pandemic began that the monthly number of single adult encounters declined.

After two months of declines in April and May, the number of encounters with families and unaccompanied children increased in June, though not to the high levels experienced in March. The Biden administration is not expelling children who arrive unaccompanied, and has gradually reduced expulsions of the number of family members: 16 percent of encountered family members were expelled in June, down from 40 percent in March.

Some of the reduction in expulsions may have to do with migrants’ unusual nationalities. Recent months have seen notable increases in migrants from neither Mexico nor the Northern Triangle: 26 percent of all Border Patrol encounters in June, and 44 percent of encounters with families, were with citizens of these “other” countries. For the second straight month, Ecuador was the number-four country of origin of migrants encountered at the border, edging out El Salvador. Migration from Nicaragua and Haiti continued to increase rapidly in June, while Mexico declined.

Migrants continued to arrive in greater numbers in unusual, remote sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, a very rural area that is roughly the geographic center of Texas’s border with Mexico, was the June destination for more than half of Cubans, more than two-thirds of Haitians, about a fifth of Hondurans, and two-thirds of Venezuelans. The Yuma sector, in southwest Arizona, was the June destination of three in five Brazilians and a third of Cubans.

In these remote sectors and elsewhere, Border Patrol continued to report encountering large groups of migrants during the past week. About 300-400 migrants, mostly Haitian citizens, arrived at a gate in the border wall near Del Rio, Texas on July 19. These are not people fleeing Haiti after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse: sources tell us that most are Haitians who emigrated some time ago to South America, where the pandemic has caused employment opportunities to dry up.

Unaccompanied child arrivals are increasing again

CBP’s June data showed an 8 percent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the border from May to June, from 13,892 to 15,018—which is still significantly less than the 18,723 kids encountered in March. But the upward trend of unaccompanied child encounters is continuing—and perhaps accelerating—into July.

The “Unaccompanied Children Daily Reports” produced each weekday by CBP and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) showed an average of 480 children newly arriving each day during the week of July 11, the highest weekly average since the week of April 18. The first four weekdays of this week (of July 18) have averaged 552 new children per day, which if sustained would be the largest weekly average since late March, when CBP and HHS began furnishing daily records.

Once in CBP custody, the children are processed and handed over as quickly as possible to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, which manages a shelter network around the country that is currently augmented with some rustic emergency facilities. As of June 30, CBP reports, children were being handed off to HHS within 28 hours. Once in HHS shelters, children are to be placed with relatives or other sponsors residing in the United States, with whom they will stay while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.

HHS has had difficulty in 2021 discharging children fast enough to keep up with arrivals of new children. As of July 21, 14,278 children were in its shelter network, nearly identical to the 14,661 in HHS custody on June 21. The agency has not been able to increase the pace of its discharges since late May.

As a result, comparing weekly averages using available CBP and HHS reports, it appears that, since the week of July 11, the population of children in U.S. government custody has begun to grow again, after 11 weeks of consecutive decreases.

Pandemic border controls remain in place

July 21 was the latest monthly deadline for the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether to extend restrictions on “non-essential” travel at the United States’ land borders with Mexico and Canada. That day, a Federal Register notice informed that U.S. ports of entry will remain closed to most travel and traffic for a 17th straight month, through August 21. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents will be able to enter the United States from Mexico, but Mexican citizens—including those with tourist visas—remain prohibited (unless they arrive via air).

The decision comes despite frequent negotiations between the U.S. and neighboring governments, and pleas from border-area political leaders. It is based largely on concerns about spread of the COVID-19 delta variant, which has caused a sharp increase in U.S. coronavirus cases, mainly among the unvaccinated population. “Officials on both sides have talked about the importance of bringing vaccination rates into parity,” the El Paso Times reported. According to Border Report, “The U.S. is reportedly demanding at least a 75-percent vaccination rate in Mexican border cities such as Tijuana. There are also reports the U.S. will not allow people from Mexico who have been vaccinated with the Chinese or Russian versions of the vaccine.”

Media reporting, noted in earlier updates, had indicated that the Biden administration might begin lifting some Title 42 restrictions, perhaps ending expulsions of asylum-seeking families, by the end of July. This is not happening: due to concerns about COVID-19 variants, plans to end expulsions are “in flux.” Although the administration faces ACLU-led litigation to halt expulsions of asylum-seeking families, and although the UNHCR has publicly criticized the practice, and despite a July 21 Capitol press event at which Democratic House members called for its end, Title 42 will remain in place, even for families.

DHS remains uncommunicative about plans for the future of the expulsions policy. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who represents a Texas border district, told the New York Times that “he had called the C.D.C. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] about it, and the agency told him he should call the Department of Homeland Security, which then sent him back to the C.D.C. He said he recently spoke with agents on the border, and they said they still had not heard anything about when the rule will be lifted.”

Some political speculation contends that the Biden administration, despite strong denials insisting that Title 42 is a public health measure, is maintaining the policy in order to avert the political fallout of an even greater increase in migration. An unnamed “former U.S. official who worked on Biden’s transition team” told the Washington Post that President Joe Biden himself is “‘super concerned’ about the political ramifications of the tumult at the border. ‘He knows the damage this can do and what a gift this is to Republicans.’”

Texas is now arresting migrants on its own

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has declared a state of emergency citing increased migrant arrivals, state law enforcement agencies have begun arresting migrants. While state police cannot enforce federal immigration law, Texas’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) and some county sheriff’s offices have started to arrest and jail migrants on charges of “trespassing” or “criminal mischief,” misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in prison in Texas.

In Val Verde County, the border county that includes Del Rio, police arrested three migrants for trespassing on July 20. They were sent to the Briscoe Unit state jail in Dilley, a town between San Antonio and Laredo where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established a family detention facility during the Obama administration. “The number of detainees is expected to grow rapidly,” the Texas Tribune reports. “The Val Verde county attorney predicted about 50 arrests of immigrants a day, ramping up to as many as 200 daily by August.”

The use of trespassing charges is complicated, the Wall Street Journal explains: “District attorneys and county lawyers in border counties said trespass arrests must be based on complaints from landowners and must be arraigned by local judges and justices of the peace, who typically release the arrestee on a personal-recognizance bond.” Nonetheless, Texas has set up a tent facility at the Val Verde county fairgrounds, where officials plan to process the migrants whom they arrest. Val Verde County Attorney David Martínez told the Texas Tribune that he would seek a “time served” sentence for most of those arrested, probably after each spends about 10 days in the Dilley jail awaiting trial.

Migrants would then be handed off to ICE, which would deport or expel them. It is not clear whether this process would afford arrested migrants any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States.

Texas counties that see large amounts of migration, like El Paso and those in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, are not participating in Gov. Abbott’s emergency plan. Local leaders say that they have seen similar recent increases in migration, for instance in 2014, 2018, and 2019, and that they do not regard the current increase to be an emergency.

Nonetheless, Gov. Abbott has sent about 1,000 Texas DPS personnel—about a quarter of all state police—to the border. He has also ordered construction of a state “border wall.” Fox News reported on the first 1.5 mile stretch of “wall,” built near the Rio Grande in Del Rio; it is an eight-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

“Unless this chain link fence is built exactly along the US-Mexico boundary, it is highly likely that it stands feet, yards or even miles away from the border,” tweeted Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso. “If that’s the case then migrants arriving at the fence are already on American soil and have the right to request asylum.”

Links

  • Federal district court judge Andrew Hanen ruled that then-president Barack Obama exceeded his authority with a 2012 executive action that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA halts deportation and provides work authorization for undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children. The decision by Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, does not change the status of 800,000 current DACA beneficiaries, pending the Biden administration’s appeals to higher courts—for now at least—but it halts all new DACA applications. It is the outcome of a lawsuit brought by Texas’s Republican Attorney-General. “Unless Congress steps in with a legislative remedy, the ultimate legality of DACA is almost certain to be decided by the Supreme Court,” according to the New York Times.
  • The mayor of border town Reynosa, in Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, has given the town’s largest migrant shelter, the evangelical-run Senda de Vida, until the weekend of July 24 to shut down. The municipal government says it is complying with an order from the binational International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which has found that the shelter, after 14 years of existence, is built too close to the Rio Grande. The immediate deadline for the shelter’s demolition comes from the mayor’s office. If it is met, the fate of 600 migrants—most of them expelled by Title 42—is far from clear.
  • “We identified one case in which the medical unit examined a sick detainee but did not send the detainee to the hospital for urgent medical treatment, and the detainee died,” reads an alarming DHS Inspector-General report about an unannounced inspection visit to ICE’s Adams detention facility in Natchez, Mississippi.
  • Maritime migration from Cuba mysteriously stopped after the historic protests that began on the island on July 11, Coast Guard and other federal sources tell the Miami Herald.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is holding up the confirmation hearing for Chris Magnus, the Biden administration’s nominee to be CBP commissioner. Wyden is demanding that DHS first provide detailed information about the Trump administration’s controversial deployment of border and other federal personnel to Portland, Oregon to put down protests in mid-2020.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractors began “remediation” or cleanup work at Trump-era border wall construction sites in Arizona. This work did not involve the addition of any new fencing. Workers “would instead focus on activities such as filling open trenches, cleaning up debris, grading unfinished maintenance roads and cutting and capping conduit,” the Arizona Republic reported.
  • A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that ICE “arrested 674, detained 121, and removed 70 potential U.S. citizens from fiscal year 2015 through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020.”
  • Long read: Bloomberg’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood meets Tommy Fisher, the North Dakota-based builder whose company received several of the Trump administration’s border wall construction contracts. Fisher spent $30 million building a private 3-mile stretch of fencing on the bank of the Rio Grande in south Texas, hoping to sell it to a federal government that, since Joe Biden’s inauguration, is not interested in buying it.
  • Long read: “Migration—including the record number of unaccompanied children—is on the rise in rural areas, as an increasing portion of the country’s land and population faces the fallout from climate change,” reports Sabrina Rodríguez from Guatemala in Politico.
  • President Biden at a July 21 CNN “Town Hall” meeting, apparently conflating asylum with refugee admissions: “What we’re trying to set up is, in the countries like in—and particularly in the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, et cetera—we are setting up in those countries: If you seek asylum in the United States, you can seek it from the country, from your—in place. You can seek it from an American embassy. You can go in and seek and see whether or not you qualify. We’ve significantly increased the number of officers who can hear cases as to whether or not you qualify under the law for being here as a refugee.”

Weekly Border Update: July 16, 2021

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

In U.S. borderlands, 2021 may be the most lethal year for migrants in nearly a decade

A San Antonio television station obtained from Border Patrol the agency’s most recent count of migrant remains encountered on U.S. soil. Since 1998, Border Patrol has found the bodies of 8,258 individuals who perished of dehydration, exposure, drownings, animal attacks, and other causes while traveling through wilderness areas in an effort to avoid being apprehended. It is an enormous death toll for a phenomenon that receives such scarce attention.

So far in fiscal year 2021 (October 2020 through May 2021), Border Patrol reported finding 203 bodies. This is quite high given that the hottest and deadliest months of the year—June through September—remain to be counted, and that the U.S. southwest has been recording higher-than-normal temperatures. By the time fiscal 2021 ends, on September 30, this could end up being the deadliest year in Border Patrol’s data since at least 2013.

Since 1998, the sectors where Border Patrol has found the most remains have shifted geographically, from California to Arizona to southeast Texas, and now, increasingly, to south-central Texas. So far this year, Border Patrol has found the most bodies in its Del Rio sector, a vast unpopulated region between Big Bend National Park and Laredo. Border Patrol’s record for migrant apprehensions in Del Rio is 157,178, set in 2000. With four months left to report for fiscal 2021, the agency has already apprehended 118,314, including more than 20,000 each in March, April, and May. Many are from “unusual” countries like Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba.

Border Patrol is the only entity keeping a national count of migrant deaths, but it “only counts those it handles in the course of its work,” the Guardian explains. Local organizations tend to find much larger numbers of dead in their home regions.

The Arizona-based group Humane Borders, mapping data from the Pima County medical examiner’s office, reported 43 bodies found in the state’s deserts in June. Not all necessarily died in June, “but at least 16 had been dead for just a day and another 13 for less than a week when they were found,” Humane Borders’ mapping coordinator, Mike Kreyche, told the Associated Press. During the first half of the 2021 calendar year, Humane Borders reports 127 sets of remains, way up from 96 during the first half of 2020. By contrast, Border Patrol reports finding only 22 remains in its Arizona sectors (Tucson and Yuma) since October 2020.

In Brooks County, Texas, about 80 miles north of where Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region borders Mexico, large numbers of migrants die while trying to circumvent a longstanding Border Patrol highway checkpoint. There, the county sheriff reports finding 50 bodies in calendar year 2021, more than in any full year since 2017. (Border Patrol reports finding 37 in the entire Rio Grande Valley sector since October 2020.) The Sheriff’s Office found 16 just in June, making this the worst June in Brooks County since 2012.

“We’re constantly having people dying,” Sheriff Benny Martinez told San Antonio’s KENS 5 TV station. “Do I sound a bit frustrated? Absolutely. Because I go through this all the time, every day, and people don’t seem to understand what’s occurring and it’s happening.”

A State Department spokesperson told CNN that the U.S. government is now running more than 30,000 radio advertisements per month in Central America, in Spanish and five Indigenous languages, in an effort to dissuade people from making the journey to the United States. This is up from 28,000 ads per month in the spring. The campaign is costing about $600,000 per month.

June border numbers increase over May

As of the morning of July 16, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet reported its encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of June. This is many days later than usual. However, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official shared some numbers with CNN’s Geneva Sands.

They show a modest overall increase over May in the agency’s encounters with undocumented migrants at the border. That is unusual: migration usually drops off a bit in June, the first of the peak hot summer months. In fact, migrant encounters have only increased from May to June twice before in this century: in 2017, as numbers recovered from a sharp drop after Donald Trump’s inauguration; and in 2020 after the initial shock of March 2020 COVID border closures.

According to CNN:

  • CBP’s encounters with migrants at the border—combining those apprehended by Border Patrol and the much smaller number who showed up at ports of entry—increased overall from 180,034 in May to 188,800 in June.
  • Family members increased from 44,639 in May to 55,805 in June.
  • Unaccompanied children increased from 14,158 in May to 15,253 in June.
  • Single adults decreased, from 121,237 in May to 117,742 in June.

These numbers represent encounters—the number of times U.S. border authorities came across an undocumented migrant—and not people. 34 percent of those apprehended in June had already been encountered once before during fiscal 2021, CNN reports. So the actual number of people apprehended in June was roughly one third lower than the “encounters” number would indicate.

This 34 percent “recidivism rate” shot upward during the pandemic, as the Trump and Biden administrations began using an old public health law to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants very quickly, with minimal processing (including asylum processing). While this “Title 42” policy has been a great hardship for asylum seekers, it has eased the process for those who seek to avoid being apprehended, as they can try to cross again quickly after being expelled.

Numbers of children and family members had been dropping in April and May, but now are up slightly. On July 13, Border Patrol reported apprehending 672 unaccompanied children—far higher than the previous 30 days’ average (436). As the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has failed to increase the pace of its placements of children with relatives or sponsors in the United States, the population in the agency’s shelters has begun to grow again, exceeding 15,000 this week for the first time since mid-June.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region, which is first in migrant “encounters” among Border Patrol’s nine sectors, numbers are increasing, the RGV Monitor reports:

The number of migrant families dropped off at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center, located in McAllen, is reaching record highs.

“The numbers have been up, they’ve been a little higher,” said McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.

City records indicate the number of migrants released at the shelter is exceeding the capacity of 600 more consistently since the end of May.

During the week of June 24 through June 30, U.S. Border Patrol dropped off a record number of 6,238 individuals seeking asylum at the respite center.

On June 25, alone, Border Patrol dropped off 1,202 people at the center.

McAllen, Texas officials cited in the article voiced concern about whether U.S. authorities and the region’s shelters are prepared for an increase in asylum-seeking migrants that may result from an imminent lifting of the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy. As reported in last week’s update, the Biden administration may soon stop expelling asylum-seeking families. “If they just come drop off individuals there and the respite center can’t take care of them, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mayor Villalobos told the Monitor. “I think it’s going to be chaotic and I think we’re going to start having issues with people in the downtown area.”

(Image from the Rio Grande Valley Monitor)

The Catholic Charities shelter continues to test all migrants for COVID, which CBP does not do before dropping them off. Those who test positive are placed in 10-day quarantine in area hotels. “Over 900 migrants were placed in quarantine at area hotels on July 5,” the Monitor reported. Sr. Norma Pimentel, who manages the Catholic Charities shelter, said that the positive test rate among migrants has crept up from 4 percent to “maybe 6 percent or 7 percent.”

Despite the low positivity rate and the quarantines policy, in very controversial July 14 comments Sen. Ted Cruz (R) blamed migrants for rising positivity rates in south Texas. (The state abandoned mask mandates and other distancing measures a long time ago, and more than half of its population remains unvaccinated.)

Sen. Cruz was one of 28 Republican senators who sent President Joe Biden a July 14 letter asking him to keep the Title 42 policy in place until “the threat of COVID-19 variants is significantly reduced,” the administration has consulted with local authorities, and “policies have been implemented to bring the situation along the southwest land border under control.” The letter was led by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R).

All Cubans and Haitians at sea will be turned back

“Allow me to be clear: if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a July 13 warning to Cuban and Haitian people considering fleeing both countries’ political turmoil. The Secretary, who was born in Cuba and brought to the United States as an infant when his family fled the island in 1960, gave comments at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

Migrants normally must be on U.S. soil to request asylum, and the Biden administration, like its predecessors during past so-called “rafter” events, is determined to deny those interdicted at sea the chance to do so. Even those who do get an initial asylum screening—which in the past has occurred after being brought to an offshore location like the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba—will be “referred to third countries for resettlement.” Historically, CBS News reported, asylum seekers who have passed this credible fear screening “have been referred for resettlement in third countries like Australia.”

“It is disappointing to hear this from @SecMayorkas,” tweeted Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Asylum is asylum is asylum. Anyone who faces persecution should be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States.”

Since October, the U.S. Coast Guard has encountered 470 Cuban and 313 Haitian migrants at sea, Mayorkas said. In all of 2020, the Coast Guard encountered 49 Cubans and 430 Haitians.

Republican governors’ border deployments continue

In a series of small deployments discussed in last week’s update, at least seven Republican governors are sending National Guard or law enforcement personnel to Texas and Arizona border zones, at those Republican governors’ request.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said on July 12 that 29 state troopers had arrived in Del Rio, Texas “a couple of days ago” and would remain for 16 days. “State officials have shared few details about the deployment, citing safety concerns,” the Des Moines Register reported. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) told reporters that Gov. Reynolds should provide information about what the troopers are doing. “I do support the governor’s efforts there, but since our taxpayer dollars are being spent on that, yes, we should have some accountability.”

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) held a roundtable with state law enforcement leaders “to discuss Idaho’s growing drug threat and the connection to the United States-Mexico border.” Little had sent five Idaho State Police investigators to Arizona in early July. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) visited Texas to meet National Guard troops from his state stationed there, mainly for a federal deployment that began in 2018.

At The Atlantic, Eric Schnurer worries that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of a private donor’s money to pay for her state’s National Guard border deployment is a glimpse into “America’s future” of increasingly privatized security.

Twelve Texas county sheriffs met with Texas Governor Greg Abbott on July 10. Sheriff Ray Del Bosque of Zapata County, which borders Mexico just west of the Rio Grande Valley region, said his department needs state resources as migrant numbers increase. Meanwhile, Gov. Abbott has transferred 1,000 inmates out of a South Texas prison so he can convert it “into a state-run jail for immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally,” the Texas Tribune reports.

While the National Guard has been sent to the border before, “their troops have essentially done busy work,” writes Jack Herrera at Politico. “In 2018, Arizona National Guard members deployed on the border were literally tasked with mucking out manure from the stables that held Border Patrol’s horses.” Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrete, Jr. observes, “In 30 years of writing about immigration, I’ve interviewed many of these [Border Patrol] agents firsthand. Not once have I heard any of them ask for backup from state troopers or the National Guard.”

Links

  • The full House Appropriations Committee approved its 2022 Homeland Security budget appropriation by a party-line 33-24 vote. Last week’s update summarized what is in the bill, which reflects Democratic Party priorities.
  • More than 10,000 people requested asylum in Mexico in June. Six months into calendar year 2021, this is already Mexico’s second-largest year ever for asylum applications. In its largest year, 2019, Mexico had 31,481 asylum requests through June. This year it is already up to 51,654. At Telemundo, Albinson Linares talks to the director of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, who notes that current law forces most asylum applicants to await the backlogged system’s decisions in the southern state of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest.
  • Texas-based Border Patrol agent Rodney Tolson Jr. signed a plea deal admitting that he took $400-per-person bribes to allow smugglers to bring undocumented migrants into the United States. Tolson would advise those who paid “which lane and time window to use for crossing through the checkpoint” in Laredo.
  • “Nearly everyone interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after being expelled to Tijuana said that they had tried crossing the border three or more times in recent weeks in hopes of getting in,” writes reporter Kate Morrissey. “One man, who declined to be identified, said he’d lost count of how many times he tried. He tossed out a guess—30.” (See the discussion above of how the Title 42 policy eases repeat crossings.)  The Pew Research Center meanwhile reported findings that between 2013 and 2018, the late-2000s trend of more Mexican migrants leaving than entering the United States had already begun to reverse: “An estimated 870,000 Mexican migrants came to the U.S. between 2013 and 2018, while an estimated 710,000 left the U.S. for Mexico.”
  • The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff revealed that the Trump administration had actually started separating migrant families during its first months in office, many months before previously known. A secret CBP program began prosecuting asylum-seeking parents and taking their children from them in Arizona’s Yuma sector, starting in July 2017. “Some of the parents separated under the Yuma program still remain apart from their children four years later.”
  • The Biden administration is allowing a handful of the 945 asylum-seekers who got sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there, under the Trump administration’s now-defunct “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, to apply for protection within the United States.
  • A JAMA Network Open (Journal of the American Medical Association-affiliated) analysis finds that “death investigation records identified violations of ICE’s [Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s] internal standards for delivery of health care in most of” 55 cases of detainees’ deaths in ICE custody between 2011 and 2018. “Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which received a federal allocation of vaccines, ICE has relied on states to provide doses to its network of more than 200 detention facilities,” reports Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS News. “Since each state sets distinct allocation priorities, the vaccination of ICE detainees has been inconsistent across the country.”
  • At Slate, Felipe de la Hoz characterizes the Biden administration’s immigration policy as a “dual approach of liberalizing the asylum system at home while making it more difficult for anyone to actually enter it.” This “reflects the longtime moderate Democratic id on immigration, which views humanitarian migration as a problem that can be solved humanely, but a problem nonetheless.”

Colombia Peace Update: July 3, 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.

(I’m posting this update a full week late. Now that work-related travel is starting up again, it’s getting harder to produce these promptly. Writing them is a useful exercise for our work, though, so I’ll keep them up for as long as I can.)

Biden and Duque speak

“Why won’t Biden call Duque?” conservative former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams asked in a June 22 Council on Foreign Relations blog post. Colombian media had been pointing out that Joe Biden and Iván Duque had not had a phone conversation since Biden’s November 2020 election. Some speculation centered on reports that members of Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, favored Donald Trump and Republican candidates in the 2020 campaign.

On June 28, Biden and Duque had their first phone conversation. The trigger was not Elliott Abrams’ prose as much as news that the helicopter in which Duque was traveling had been hit by gunfire while over Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on June 25. The two presidents spoke for 25 minutes; in the room with Duque was Vice President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, Chief of Staff María Paula Correa, and the recently named ambassador to the United States, Juan Carlos Pinzón. El Tiempo reported that Biden asked Duque to send his greetings to Duque’s three children.

The White House and the Colombian Presidency both published brief readouts of the call. Both noted that Biden pledged to donate 2.5 million COVID vaccines, and that the two presidents discussed topics like security cooperation, climate change, and the situation in Venezuela.

The White House statement notes, “President Biden also voiced support for the rights of peaceful protestors, underscored that law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of accountability, and condemned wanton acts of violence and vandalism.” The Colombian document omitted any mention of the protest movement that has rocked the country since April 28, or of the security forces’ heavy-handed response.

“Colombia is a symbol of the challenges that the Andean region is experiencing. The economic challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic because people have lost jobs and family members,” Juan González, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told Colombia’s La W radio after the two presidents’ conversation. “Our interest,” he added, “is to help Colombia overcome this. It is important that the country can be a safe place. We recognize that the situation in Venezuela has been one of the reasons for the lack of security. Colombia is a country with many inequalities, so alternatives to crime and drug trafficking must be created.”

U.S. House drafts 2022 foreign aid bill

On July 1, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee, by a 32-25 vote, approved its version of the “State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs” appropriation—that is, the foreign aid bill—for fiscal 2022. It would provide $62.2 billion for diplomacy and assistance worldwide, a 12 percent increase over 2021 levels.

The House bill, which tends to reflect the priorities of the chamber’s Democratic Party majority, would provide Colombia with $461.375 million in assistance during 2022, about $7.5 million more than the Biden administration requested and identical to the amount in the 2021 appropriation. This does not count $2.5 million for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Colombia, an unspecified amount to assist the Venezuelan migrant population in Colombia, and an unspecified amount of military and police assistance through Defense budget accounts (which totaled $55.4 million in 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service).

We estimate that 51 percent of U.S. assistance would go through accounts that provide economic and civilian institution-building aid, 18 percent would go through accounts that provide military and police aid, and 31 percent would go through accounts that might pay for both types of aid. So unlike the “Plan Colombia” period, aid to Colombia would be less than half military and police assistance. Economic aid, the Committee’s narrative report accompanying the bill specifies,

should include support for the presence of civilian government institutions in former conflict zones; the reintegration of ex-combatants; the development and basic needs of war-torn areas; civil society organizations that promote truth, justice, and reconciliation; advocacy for victims’ rights; protection of human rights defenders; verification of peace accord implementation; civic education for a culture of peace; and comprehensive rural development that advances the agrarian chapters of the peace accords.

View this table as a Google spreadsheet

As in past years, the bill includes human rights conditions: language holding up a portion of military aid until the State Department certifies that Colombia is doing more to hold accountable human rights violators, protect social leaders, and protect Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. In recent years, these conditions held up 20 percent of aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a program of mostly military aid that has usually provided about $38 million per year.

The 2022 House bill makes an important change to the conditions: applying them to police assistance as well. The amount held up pending certification would increase from 20 to 30 percent, and the conditions would apply not just to FMF but to International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), a much larger State Department-run program that is the largest source of aid to Colombia’s National Police. If this language appears in the final bill, it would be the first time in many years that human rights conditions would apply to police aid. The change is a result of mounting evidence of human rights abuses committed by police in the context of social protests in November 2019, September 2020, and since April 28, 2021.

Now that it is out of committee, the 2022 foreign aid bill will go to the full House of Representatives, which may approve it before the August congressional recess. The Senate, whose Appropriations Committee is evenly split between 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, will probably consider its version of the bill in September, though it’s possible it could begin work in late July. Once the House and Senate pass their versions, they must reconcile differences in the two bills, approve the final product, and send it to the President. The U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year starts on October 1, 2021.

Duque proposes an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” law

Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests have largely subsided, though concentrations persist in neighborhoods in Bogotá, Cali, and elsewhere. Ahead of the July 20 launch of a new congressional session, President Duque is telegraphing that his administration plans to introduce an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” bill in that legislature.

The law would increase prison sentences for vandalism, blocking roads, or attacking police, all of which are currently offenses under Colombian law. The law “already includes jail sentences of around eight years for obstructing public highways, violence against public servants and property,” Reuters reported.

Duque called for the new law at a June 30 promotion ceremony for the chief of Colombia’s embattled National Police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, who received his fourth star. Such a law is needed, he told the mostly police audience, “so that those who promote these practices do not try to get away with circumventing the rights of Colombians with impunity.” He called for a “clear and responsible” discussion of “what peaceful protest is and should be.” While he noted that most protest has been peaceful, there are many “vandals.”

Duque cited what happened to Camilo Vélez Martínez, a motorcyclist killed on June 25 when protesters stretched a cable across a street in southwest Bogotá. A protest leader in northwest Bogotá admitted to El Espectador’s Mónica Rivera that episodes like this point to a loss of discipline as public concentrations persist. “What we have seen is that they are infiltrating us and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to control the people. We control the compas, those who are with us, but we still have people who come to disturb the scene and then leave and go away.”

The political opposition saw in Duque’s statements an anti-democratic call to criminalize protest. “President Iván Duque announces an ’anti-riot law’ to legally shield the violent repression of young people,” said Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino. “Duque suffers from a serious mental and cognitive problem of connection with reality.”

The proposal comes at a time when opposition analysts like Laura Gil, director of La Línea del Medio, warn of increasing concentration of power in the executive branch. “The unthinkable is becoming a reality: the formal breaking of the rules of the game,” Gil writes. In that context, there is reluctance to give Duque’s governing Centro Democrático party greater power to decide who is a peaceful protester and who is a “vandal.”

Data about the Paro Nacional

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, the transitional justice tribunal set up by the 2016 peace accord) issued a report on July 1 warning that the Paro Nacional protests, and the government’s response, have affected the work of the post-conflict justice and truth system.

“The situation is worrying, since between April 28 and May 30, 2021, armed conflict events and affectations of civilians increased in 111 municipalities of interest for the Comprehensive System for Peace,” the JEP states. In those municipalities of interest, it has counted 13 conflict events and 89 “affectations,” way up from an average of 18 affectations during the same period in 2017-20. “This is evidenced by an increase in death threats, homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and massive events of forced displacement.” The JEP also notes a sharp increase, in the context of the protests, of “groups of armed civilians” carrying out violence against protesters.

It adds new and troubling statistics: “Colombia has been the country with the second highest rate of violent deaths per day of protest in the world (one death every 36 hours), and the 2021 national strike has the highest number of violent deaths of people who have participated in social protest scenarios in the last 44 years [in Colombia].”

As of June 28, the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz, which have closely monitored human rights abuses in the context of the protests, counted:

  • 75 killings in the framework of the national strike, of which 44 were allegedly committed by the security forces. Through June 26, Temblores reported that “13 are in the process of clarifying whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the security forces,” and that “4 are attributable to armed civilians in which there are indications of possible involvement of members of the security forces.” A June 30 communiqué to the UN Human Rights Council from over 300 worldwide NGOs cites different numbers: “83 homicides have been reported, including at least 27 civilians killed by ordinary and riot police.”
  • The communiqué from 300 NGOs cites a large number of missing or disappeared people: “327 people are still unaccounted for, with the authorities denying that about half of these disappearances ever took place.”
  • 83 victims of “ocular violence”—damage to protesters’ eyes, usually by fired projectiles.
  • 28 victims of sexual violence. As of June 26, Temblores also reported 9 victims of gender-based violence.

58 of the 75 killings occurred in the southwestern department of Valle del Cauca; that department’s capital is Cali, where 43 of the killings occurred.

An ongoing series at El Espectador is producing biographical profiles of some of those killed in the protests. “Most of them went out to demonstrate, and in response to their discontent they were met with bullets.”

As of July 2, Colombia’s National Police counted 3 of its members killed and 1,548 injured. It added that investigations of police personnel were underway for 16 cases of possible homicide, 40 cases of physical aggression, and 105 cases of abuse of authority. On 8,783 occasions in the context of protests, police had carried out “transfers for protection,” a controversial form of short-term custody of up to 12 hours, usually without charges, foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 police law. While being “transferred,” human rights groups claim that those in custody suffer abuse or are held in inappropriate locations.

Links

  • The House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a two-hour-plus July 1 hearing about Colombia’s recent protests. Commission Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) repeated his call for a suspension of U.S. police assistance to Colombia.
  • The International Crisis Group published a thorough analysis of Colombia’s National Strike and what may come next. “In the short term,” it reads, “the government should embark on comprehensive police reform, support efforts at national and local dialogue, and invite international observers to negotiations as a trust-building measure.” The report disputes government claims that armed or criminal groups played important roles in the protests, but does indicate that such groups’ increasing activity—things “getting out of hand”—is a key reason why local protest leaders began to stand down in early June.
  • The UN Verification Mission in Colombia published its latest quarterly report on implementation of the 2016 peace accord. Between late March and late June, “the Mission verified 16 homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported 49 killings of human rights leaders and defenders.” About half of 13,589 accredited former FARC combatants are now involved in individual or collective productive projects. The Bogotá-based think tanks CINEP and CERAC also produced their ninth report on verification of peace accord implementation as the “Technical Secretariat of the International Verification Component.”
  • Úber Banquez Martínez, the former paramilitary leader who under the name “Juancho Dique” led a terror campaign in the Montes de María region 20 years ago, talked to El Espectador about his relationship with the region’s military leaders. Notably, Banquez is too scared to talk openly about the region’s political and economic leaders’ support for paramilitarism. “It is more dangerous to talk about the political system than about the Armed Forces, because they have a lot of power. They are alive, they are still alive and they are very dangerous.”
  • Colombia’s National Police released composite sketches of two men believed responsible for shots fired on June 25 at a helicopter in which President Duque was traveling over Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. The sketches’ crude quality inspired ridicule on social media. Defense Minister Diego Molano hypothesized that the attack was the work of “a possible criminal alliance between the ELN’s urban front and the FARC’s dissidents of the 33rd front.”
  • “The media most often show the anti-riot squads in their Darth Vader getups, the beatings and the shootings and the tear gas bursting into the air in great clouds. What appear less often are the ecstatic marches that are also celebrations of being alive after a year of Covid fear and loss,” writes veteran journalist Alma Guillermoprieto at the New York Review of Books.
  • Colombia’s medical examiner’s office (coroner) counted 4,986 homicides in the first five months of 2021. This is 27 percent more than the first five months of 2020. Seven percent of the victims were women. “The gradual reopening after quarantines” may be a reason for the increase, security analyst Henry Cancelado told El Tiempo.
  • Javier Tarazona and members of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes denounced on June 30 that former Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín has been collaborating with Colombia’s ELN guerrillas, and that the government maintains “safe houses” in Venezuela for ELN and ex-FARC dissident group members. FundaRedes often alleges Venezuelan government ties to Colombian armed groups and has been a key source of information about recent border-zone fighting between Venezuelan forces and ex-FARC dissidents. Two days after this denunciation, Venezuelan police arrested and imprisoned Tarazona and three colleagues.
  • The armed forces reported seizing six tons of cocaine at a “complex of laboratories” in Samaniego, Nariño. The Defense Ministry claims that the site was run by the ELN, which has long been active in Samaniego.
  • “Colombian President Iván Duque made the war against drugs one of the priorities of his administration,” reads a Defense Ministry document reproduced at the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website. It commits Colombia to eradicating another 130,000 hectares of coca in 2021 “but this time considering the option of resuming aerial spraying.”

Weekly Border Update: July 9, 2021

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

Biden administration extends military deployment into 2022

The Department of Defense has approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to keep military personnel deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border during the 2022 fiscal year (October 1, 2021-September 30, 2022). With this decision, the Biden administration continues a military mission that was part of Donald Trump’s approach to the border.

In April 2018, in response to media reports of a “migrant caravan” making its way through Mexico, Donald Trump ordered National Guard troops to the border. It was the fourth time since 2002 that a president had ordered the National Guard to support Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In October of that year, as a new caravan formed in the run-up to midterm legislative elections, Trump augmented that with a highly unusual deployment of active-duty army and marine personnel, a rarity on U.S. soil. At its height in November 2018, up to 2,579 National Guardsmen and 5,815 active-duty troops were involved.

4,000 troops, a mix of National Guardsmen and active-duty military, were approved to serve at the border during fiscal 2021. Right now, according to Stars and Stripes, 3,800 are there. (A June 24 Defense Department release cites “more than 2,600.”)

Their duties are mostly helping to maintain CBP equipment and watching over segments of the border and alerting Border Patrol if they see illicit crossings. Between April 2018 and May 2020, the Defense Department obligated at least $841 million to pay for this deployment, according to a February U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report covered in a past weekly update.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the DHS request to extend the military mission on June 23, but reduced the troop strength to 3,000. As before, most personnel will be National Guard members from several states, under federal command.

“Invasion” narrative making a dent in U.S. public opinion

Right now, about 23 states contribute National Guard personnel to the Defense Department’s border mission. Troops usually rotate to the border on two-week tours of duty. States that recently announced new deployments for this federal mission through 2022 include Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Other states, though, are sending police and some troops for a different mission, called by the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas. Those governors are invoking the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a 1996 agreement in which states may assist each other in emergencies, usually with the requesting state reimbursing the costs.

Greg Abbott (R-Texas) and Doug Ducey (R-Arizona) have asked states to contribute security personnel, with a preference for civilian law enforcement personnel who may be empowered to arrest people for crimes like trespassing (not specifically to enforce federal immigration law). Abbott sent Texas police and military forces to the border in March, calling it “Operation Lone Star.”

The list of states responding to Abbott and Ducey includes the following so far. All have Republican governors.

  • Arkansas is sending 40 National Guard troops for about 90 days; they will mostly perform vehicle maintenance and repairs.
  • Florida is sending over 50 law enforcement officers for 16-day deployments.
  • Iowa has not confirmed a number, but may be sending 25-30 Iowa State Patrol troopers between July 8 and 23.
  • Nebraska will send “more than two dozen” State Patrol officers for about 16 days.
  • Ohio is sending 14 Ohio State Highway Patrol officers.
  • South Dakota is sending up to 50 National Guard troops for one or two months.
  • Wyoming is in negotiations about what assets to send. It had offered aerial coverage, but “it was determined that these particular assets may not precisely match the needs of the requested border mission.”

In an unusual move that raises strong civil-military relations concerns, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is using an approximately $1 million donation from a Tennessee billionaire to cover the cost of her state’s National Guard response to Abbott and Ducey’s call. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) called this a “bad precedent.” (During the George W. Bush administration, Hutchinson headed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and served as the first DHS assistant secretary for Border and Transportation Security.)

This state deployment has “been criticized as political theater,” Stars and Stripes notes, as Abbott and Ducey seek to portray the Biden administration as leaving them vulnerable to an “invasion” of migrants. “Carnage is being caused by the people coming across the border,” Abbott told a press conference. “Homes are being invaded. Neighborhoods are dangerous, and people are being threatened on a daily basis with guns.” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick added, “This is a fight for our survival.”

Reality doesn’t match this rhetoric. An Austin American-Statesman fact check found that it is exceedingly rare for undocumented migrants to carry out violent crimes as they pass through border counties. Reported offenses tend to be nuisance crimes and petty theft, like cutting farms’ fences and water supply hoses, stealing clothes, food, and other travel needs, or setting fires. In fact, instead of killing, migrants are dying—in alarmingly high numbers this year—of dehydration and exposure as they get lost in border-area wilderness zones.

Still, the “invasion” narrative seems to be impacting U.S. public opinion, as U.S. authorities encounter large numbers of migrants at the border this year. Though it gives President Joe Biden a 50 percent approval rating, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released July 4 finds only 33 percent of U.S. respondents approving of his handling of immigration at the border; 51 percent disapprove. A mid-June Harvard CAPS/Harris poll gives Biden a 59 percent overall approval rating, but only 36 percent say Biden should continue his current border security policies and 64 percent want him to pursue a stricter approach. A Republican-commissioned poll cited in Politico finds that “53 percent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.”

Opinion articles by former Bush White House official Karl Rove and former El Paso Representative and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, two individuals who share very few views, coincide in noting an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment among Latino residents of Texas border counties. This voting bloc has long gone Democratic but gave Biden a narrower victory margin in 2020. Rove sees these voters shifting Republican “because their border communities are the first to bear the costs of rising illegal immigration.” O’Rourke says his get-out-the-vote organization’s “deep canvassing efforts” in border areas “reveal that fears of immigrants bringing crime over the border rank as a top concern for residents.”

House Subcommittee Passes Homeland Security Appropriations Bill

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security met on June 30 to mark up (amend and approve) its draft of the 2022 DHS appropriations bill. The Subcommittee approved the draft by a voice vote. The bill, which funds the DHS budget for fiscal 2022, now goes on to the full Appropriations Committee, which is to mark up the bill on July 13. It then goes to the full House of Representatives, likely before the August congressional recess.

The bill reflects the priorities of the House’s Democratic majority. Though the Senate has a bare Democratic majority, we can expect that chamber’s Appropriations Committee—which is split between 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans—to come up with a more conservative bill when it meets, probably in September.

The House bill provides DHS with $52.81 billion in funding for fiscal 2022, a $934 million increase over 2021:

  • CBP would get $14.11 billion in net discretionary appropriations. This would be a cut: “$927 million below the fiscal year 2021 enacted level and $456 million below the [Biden administration’s] request.”
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would get $7.97 billion in discretionary appropriations, almost identical to 2021 and to the administration’s request. However, ICE would see its detention and deportation budget (Civil Immigration Enforcement Operations) cut by $331.6 million from 2021 levels, to $3.79 billion. ICE’s investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), would increase $124.2 million over 2021, to $2.26 billion.

Some of the most significant adjustments in the House appropriators’ bill include the following.

  • Border wall: the bill provides no funding for additional border barriers. It would rescind $2.06 billion from prior years’ appropriations for wall-building. It authorizes up to $100 million of prior years’ money for environmental mitigation activities, authorizing their transfer to the Department of Interior for that purpose.
  • CBP’s technology budget would increase by $132 million, with emphases on “non-intrusive imaging technology,” “border technology,” “innovative technology,” “port of entry technology,” body-worn cameras, and video recording tech inside Border Patrol stations.
  • Ports of entry: $655 million would go for “construction and modernization of land port of entry facilities.”
  • No money would go toward increasing Border Patrol’s authorized staffing level.
  • ICE detention: The bill would give ICE enough funding ($2.46 billion) to detain an average of 28,500 single adults per day. ICE’s current population is 27,000. It would require DHS “to provide detained migrants access to legal counsel, including prospective pro bono counsel.”
  • Alternatives to detention (ATD) are a big focus of the bill. Subcommittee Chair Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) cites “a commitment to the humane treatment of migrants through increased funding for Alternatives to Detention with case management services and reduced lengths of stay in detention for asylum seekers who don’t pose a flight risk and are not a threat to public safety or national security.” ICE’s ATD budget would increase by $34.5 million, to $475 million. The bill would increase, from $5 million to $15 million, an Alternatives to Detention Case Management Pilot Program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • Processing of newly arrived migrants is also a big priority. “I continue to have serious concerns regarding the physical and mental wellbeing of individuals, particularly children, at border facilities,” reads a quote from Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut). “I am proud that this bill respects their dignity by improving conditions in CPB [sic.] short-term holding facilities, investing in alternatives to detention, making processing quicker and more efficient, and reducing backlogs of immigration, refugee, and asylum applications.” The bill would allocate $170 million to build Integrated Migrant Processing Centers at the border, and would give ICE $100 million, to be administered by FEMA, for “a non-custodial, community-based shelter grant program for immigration processing, ATD enrollment, and provision of case management services for migrants.”
  • Internal controls of border and migration enforcement agencies would be strengthened by a one-quarter increase over 2021 levels, to $42.2 million, in the budget of DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). The Immigration Detention Ombudsman’s Office would get a $304,000 increase over 2021, to $20.3 million.
  • The bill authorizes the use of CBP and ICE funds to support reunification of migrant families separated during the Trump administration. It would prohibit funding to detain or remove an undocumented person, usually a relative, applying to sponsor a child who arrived at the border unaccompanied.

Links

  • Human Rights First and the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute collaborated on a report about the Biden administration’s use of the “Title 42” pandemic border closure and rapid migrant expulsion policy, in place since March 2020, in the El Paso area. It finds that expelled asylum seekers have been exposed to danger on the Mexican side of the border, and that recent humanitarian exceptions for some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers do “not comply with U.S. asylum law or treaty obligations.” These exceptions appear to favor migrants who are Spanish-speaking and are neither Black nor Indigenous. “Faith-led organizations, humanitarian groups, legal services organizations, and other volunteers stand ready in the El Paso region to welcome these asylum seekers and help them reach their destinations in the United States,” the report concludes.
  • Reuters, CNN, and Politico covered the Title 42 policy’s likely imminent end. The pandemic provision got used to expel undocumented migrants at the border over 900,000 times since March 2020, over 500,000 of those times during Joe Biden’s presidency. The Biden administration may soon stop applying Title 42 to asylum-seeking families. “It doesn’t make sense to keep it in place if it’s not actually deterring migration,” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute told Reuters. “My hope was that they would buy some time to build a real functioning system at the border. But that didn’t quite happen.” Officials at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CNN that they “are bracing for the eventual lifting of border restrictions” and “some are concerned about staffing and whether there are enough agents and officers to process an increased number of individuals.” Politico warns that “Republicans plan to highlight any increase in migrants or delays in processing them in campaign ads, mailers and debates in races all over the country as part of a long-planned strategy to use immigration to try to retake Congress in the midterm elections next year.”
  • At Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, where the agency and its contractors have given at least one vaccine dose to only 20 percent of detainees, the New York Times reports “major surges in coronavirus infections.”
  • As migrants from countries other than Mexico and Central America arrive at the border in greater numbers (as noted in two of our last three updates), a Washington Post visualization shows the different parts of the border where different nationalities are tending to arrive. The concentration of people from different countries in different regions is “a migration pattern that U.S. officials say they have never seen to this degree.”
  • The Supreme Court agreed with a Biden administration request to vacate previous district and circuit court decisions in favor of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition, which had sued to challenge the Trump administration’s 2019 border wall “emergency” declaration. The Biden administration asked that the Supreme Court not hear the challenge due to “changed circumstances,” and the case now goes back to district court.
  • “My message to the Biden administration is this,” writes former WOLA director Joy Olson, who is just back from a trip to sites along the Texas-Mexico border. “Stop pretending that you control things that you don’t and start opening more legal pathways for migration and protection that you do control.”

Weekly Border Update: July 2, 2021

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

Title 42, which may be in its last days, exacts a humanitarian toll

Between March 2020 and May 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expelled 867,673 migrants whom the agency encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Often, this has meant sending them back to Mexico within an hour or two, even if they are not Mexican, with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States.

This is due to a Trump-era order citing the COVID-19 pandemic as justification to expel migrants with minimal processing. The process is called “Title 42” after the section of the U.S. Code containing an old border quarantine authority. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, though it has not expelled unaccompanied children and it has expelled a declining number of migrants who arrive as family units. (8,986 family members expelled in May, down from 17,795 in April and 21,423 in March.)

Citing “administration officials and others familiar with the discussions,” the Wall Street Journal got further confirmation that the Biden administration is moving toward lifting Title 42. Families requesting asylum at the border may be able to do so without expulsion by the end of July. Title 42 will continue, however, to expel single adults “for the next few months.” (This was first reported by Axios and the New York Times during the week of June 20.) The Journal notes that the change “is expected to come in conjunction with a phased reopening this summer of nonessential travel at ports of entry along the Mexican and Canadian borders.”

Some officials are concerned that lifting Title 42 will lead to a sharp increase in arrivals of migrant families at the border; the Journal reports that the administration is considering options to speed migrants’ asylum processes in order to minimize the length of their stay in the United States pending decisions. Measures may include allowing asylum officers—not just immigration judges—to rule on cases, and allowing asylum seekers to make appointments at border ports of entry using a CBP app.

Large numbers of expelled migrants, meanwhile, continue to accumulate in Mexican border cities, often in strikingly miserable conditions. In Tijuana, 2,000 mostly Mexican, Central American, and Haitian migrants are encamped outside the Chaparral pedestrian port of entry into the United States. (Many there were not expelled under Title 42, but believe they need to be near the border crossing before it reopens.) Mexico’s government human rights ombudsman (CNDH) is warning of numerous health risks at a site that lacks basic sanitation, and city authorities say they plan to clear the encampment soon.

Across from south Texas, in the notoriously organized crime-ridden city of Reynosa, over 1,000 asylum seekers are encamped at a plaza not far from the port of entry. Humanitarian workers from the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers told Border Report of an outbreak of COVID-19 among those in the plaza. Those who test positive for the coronavirus are being quarantined in one part of the park, while workers are racing to move many of those who test negative to an expanded area of Senda de Vida, an evangelical-run shelter not far from the port of entry.

More migrants arriving from “other” countries

As a recent weekly update noted, a sharply rising portion of migrants encountered at the U.S-Mexico border are neither from Mexico nor from Central America. Citizens of these “other” countries made up 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters with undocumented migrants in May, and 45 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters with migrant family members. The “other” countries whose citizens were most frequently encountered were Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, and Romania.

The Associated Press reported on June 28 from Del Rio, Texas, a small border town that has seen a jump in arrivals of migrants from Venezuela. Though about 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, very few have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico land border until recently. 7,484 were apprehended or showed up at ports of entry in May. That monthly number is nearly triple the 2,787 Venezuelans apprehended in all of 2020 and more than triple the 2,202 apprehended in all of 2019. Of those 7,484, 5,465 (73 percent) showed up in Del Rio. Nearly all are turning themselves in and seeking asylum in the United States.

The AP notes that the Venezuelans wading across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, to Del Rio tend to be more highly educated (“bankers, doctors, and engineers”), and many had first emigrated to elsewhere in South America, where they were living and working until COVID-19 collapsed the region’s economies. Most fly to Mexico City or Cancún, then contract with smugglers who take them to Ciudad Acuña. Their trip takes “as little as four days.”

The sharply increasing numbers of migrants from Venezuela and other unusual countries at the border, the AP notes, are “a harbinger of a new type of migration that has caught the Biden administration off guard: pandemic refugees.”

Republican politicians focus on the border

Five days after Vice President Kamala Harris’s quick June 25 visit to El Paso, former President Donald Trump was in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region for a meeting with border authorities, a speech, and a Fox News “town hall” event. The visit was one of several ongoing efforts by Republican political leaders to challenge the Biden administration on border security and rising migration numbers.

From a lectern placed at a point where a section of border wall ends, Trump attacked Joe Biden for undoing his policies. “Biden is destroying our country,” he told the assembled crowd, which included former officials from his Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from Texas’s Department of Public Security (DPS), Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), and 31 Republican members of Congress.

“I used to go around in speeches and say, two things that will never get old are a wheel and a wall… The wall worked, really worked,” Trump said. “Within two months everything could have been completed. It would have been painted.”

Valerie González of the Rio Grande Valley Monitor noted that of 28 officials participating in a briefing with the former president, only three  were from the local area: “Javier Villalobos, McAllen mayor; Benny Martinez, Brooks County sheriff; and Paul Perez, president of the National Border Patrol Council RGV 3307.” The only one who spoke was Martínez, whose county hosts a Border Patrol highway checkpoint around which migrants walk. A large number get lost in the surrounding ranch land and die of dehydration or exposure. The Sheriff said that this year has seen a 185 percent increase in migrant apprehensions in Brooks County, and a 490 percent increase in 911 emergency calls.

Brooks is one of about 28 Texas counties that agreed to be included in a disaster declaration that Gov. Abbott issued in late May to respond to a “border emergency.” The original declaration covered 34 border-area counties, but several—including those in the majority-Democratic Rio Grande Valley area—objected, citing a lack of evidence. On April 26, Abbott had sent letters to all 254 of Texas’s counties requesting estimates of their financial needs resulting from the border “disaster.” Only eight counties had responded as of June 18, the Monitor reported, and only two had provided monetary amounts, which totaled less than $25,000.

In Brooks County, Martínez said the disaster declaration would help authorities deal with grass fires set by lost migrants seeking to alert rescuers. In Culberson County, in west Texas near the border, Sheriff Oscar Carrillo told the Dallas Morning News’s Alfredo Corchado that authorities had signed the disaster declaration, “but not for political reasons. I’m just practical. We need to be reimbursed for the $30,000 we spent on the migrants who’ve died so far.”

Sheriff Carrillo called “just a show” another of Gov. Abbott’s initiatives: a request, issued with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) for other state governors to send law enforcement personnel to help secure the border. Abbott’s request appears to have attracted short-term visits of small contingents of state police or National Guardsmen from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Tennessee. All of these states have Republican governors.

“It’s unclear what these out-of-state forces will be empowered to do, and some states aren’t offering much detail,” a PolitiFact investigation finds. “Based on what we’ve gathered, they will be limited to investigative work and backing up highway patrols.” Lt. Col (Ret.) Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, told the New York Times that National Guard troops’ role would be largely “ceremonial duties, though they will have the authority to make citizens’ arrests.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said it would cost his state $575,000 to send 30 guardsmen for 90 days. Idaho said its deployment would cost about $53,000.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) would not divulge how much it would cost to send 50 of her state’s 3,100 National Guard members to the border for 30 to 60 days—her office cited “security reasons” for the silence—but she came up with a controversial way to pay for it. The deployment’s price tag will be paid by a private donor: Willis Johnson, the Tennessee-based billionaire chairman of Copart, an automobile auction company, who describes himself as a “hardcore Republican.”

While the governor’s office insists that paying soldiers with private funds is legal in South Dakota while the guardsmen remain under the governor’s command, the New York Times described it as “a fuzzy area of the law that officials in the state said had never before been contemplated.” Roger Tellinghuisen, a former Republican attorney-general of South Dakota, told the Times, “I don’t have a clue if it’s legal. It’s a question in my own mind.”

“The military is supposed to be used to further our national security interests and ensure the safety of all citizens, not just the whims of a few private individuals with the means to pay for its services,” Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project, told the Guardian. “It’s basically money laundering, and it’s turning the state National Guard into a mercenary force,” Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force lawyer who teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, told the New York Times.

Beyond hosting Trump, declaring a disaster, and inviting other states’ law enforcement, Texas Gov. Abbott—who is up for re-election in 2022 and may be eyeing a 2024 presidential bid—is active on other fronts. He continues to move toward stripping licenses for Texas childcare facilities that are housing migrant children who arrive unaccompanied. This would force the Biden administration to scramble to find shelter space for these kids, who have been arriving in record numbers since March.

Five Texas sheriff’s departments, meanwhile, have sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), citing a Biden policy that requires the agency to take into custody only migrants considered national security or public safety threats, when they are released from criminal custody. Nationally, ICE’s detained migrant population has risen this year from 14,000 to nearly 27,000; 80 percent of those adding to the population are single adults apprehended at the border, BuzzFeed notes. 4,000 of those in custody are asylum seekers who, for some reason, ICE has determined to be flight risks and required to be detained.

Republicans’ efforts to raise the border and migration and issue do not appear to be resonating beyond the party’s base, according to a June 11-17 Reuters/Ipsos poll. Just 10 percent of 4,420 adult respondents ranked immigration as the United States’ top priority, down from 15 percent in April. Republicans who ranked immigration number one totaled 19 percent, down 10 points from April. President Biden, though, maintains a low approval rating for his handling of immigration: 40 percent of Reuters/Ipsos respondents approved and 47 percent disapproved.

Links

  • The Biden administration is formalizing a process to allow U.S. resident military veterans who were later deported, often because they committed minor crimes, to return to the United States.
  • In rural Culberson county, between El Paso and Texas’s Big Bend region, the sheriff’s office has already handled 13 migrant deaths so far in 2021, reports Alfredo Corchado at the Dallas Morning News.
  • Between now and August 2, the Biden administration will be closing six of the large emergency shelter facilities it has set up to house migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied. Children stay in the austere shelters while awaiting placement with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. Facilities set to close include one at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; a former oil worker camp in Midland, Texas; tent-based facilities in Carrizo Springs and Donna, Texas; and convention centers in Long Beach and San Diego, California. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the population of children at the largest and most notorious of these shelters, Fort Bliss, Texas, has dropped to 790 from around 4,800 two months ago. An average of 401 unaccompanied children arrived at the border every day in June. As of July 1, 14,416 were in shelters, approximately 6,100 of them temporary emergency shelters.
  • At a July 1 hearing before the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, 32 organizations and the Mexico office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued that Mexico’s use of security forces for migration enforcement, including “pushbacks” of migrants, has exacerbated illegitimate use of force against migrants.
  • Mexico’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) found migrants being held in crowded conditions at a detention center run by the country’s National Migration Institute (INM) in the remote border town of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. About 13 more migrants were being held in the Piedras Negras municipal jail in very unsanitary conditions, while unable to contact relatives, the CNDH reported. A coalition of mostly southern Mexican human rights groups (Colectivo de Observación y Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos en el Sureste Mexicano, Comdhse) denounced cases of torture by immigration and National Guard personnel in INM’s migrant detention centers nationwide, including “violence, beatings, threats, lack of food or rotten food.” The worst situation, the group claims, is at Siglo XXI, the INM’s largest detention facility, in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula.

Colombia Peace Update: June 26, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Two high-profile attacks in Cúcuta in two weeks

The helicopter in which President Iván Duque and other top officials were traveling got hit by six bullets as it prepared to land in Cúcuta, capital of the conflictive Norte de Santander department in northeastern Colombia, on June 25. Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios, and Norte de Santander Governor Silvano Serrano were returning to Cúcuta from a visit to the municipality of Sardinata. All landed safely, with no injuries.

Sardinata is part of the Catatumbo region, which in 2019 made Norte de Santander Colombia’s number-one coca-producing department. It is an area of strong campesino organizations, but also has strong influence of armed groups like the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, a weak remnant of the old Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla group, and organized crime.

As of June 26 no group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the presidential helicopter.

This was the second major attack in 10 days on a difficult-to-reach government target in Cúcuta. On June 15, a car bomb injured 36 people at the headquarters of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade. It remains unclear how—as security camera footage reveals—the bomber was able to enter the base after a cursory security check an hour and a quarter before his vehicle exploded. The blast slightly injured some U.S. military trainers who had been present at the base.

The ELN denied responsibility for the bombing; in January 2019, the group had quickly admitted to a lethal bombing at the National Police academy in Bogotá. At Razón Pública, researcher Jorge Mantilla points to reasons why the ELN or ex-FARC dissidents might not be responsible. While he also casts doubt on “self-attack” hypotheses, Mantilla faults the government for a clear failure of counter-intelligence and force protection, asking how an attacker could so easily enter a base in one of Colombia’s most militarily fortified regions.

Ingrid Betancourt faces her former captors

The Truth Commission hosted three “recognition encounters” during the week, in which those responsible for war crimes met with, and showed contrition to, their victims. The highest-profile of these took place on June 23 in Bogotá, where FARC leaders who have admitted responsibility for kidnappings met with several people whom the group had held captive for years. The post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), has estimated that the FARC kidnapped 21,396 people during the conflict, either to extort ransom payments or to press for prisoner exchanges.

The best-known former hostage at the Bogotá event was Íngrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician whom the FARC held captive between 2002 and a July 2008 rescue. This was the first time Betancourt had agreed to meet with former FARC leaders. She participated at the invitation of the Truth Commission’s president, Fr. Francisco de Roux.

FARC leaders Rodrigo Londoño, Pastor Alape, Julián Gallo, and Pedro Trujillo voiced contrition. “We committed a serious crime, a product of the process of dehumanization into which we fall when we only see the world as divided between friends and enemies,” said Alape. “When we believe that all resources are valid to win the war.”

In her remarks, Betancourt noted that the ex-guerrillas’ participation was cause for “hope.” But she said she had wanted more. “I must confess that I am surprised that we on this side [the victims] are all crying, while the other side has not shed a single tear.” From some FARC leaders, she said she heard a “political speech” of contrition, but not enough words spoken from the heart.

Betancourt asked her former captors to reflect more fully on how they lost touch with their humanity, tying her remarks to the ongoing social protests that have swept Colombia since late April.

Interviewed by El Tiempo, Betancourt applauded the work the JEP did in documenting the FARC’s kidnappings and leading the ex-guerrilla leadership to recognize its responsibility. “Now what we are waiting for are the sentences, which I hope will be at the same level as the indictment,” she said, hoping that the JEP hands down punishments in conditions as austere as the peace accord allows. “It would be very sad if after having done this exercise, after weaving together all the experiences of so many people, we end up with justice condemning them to planting trees.”

U.S. reports an unexpectedly large increase in estimated coca cultivation

On June 25 the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP, also known as the “Drug Czar”) released the U.S. government’s estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia in 2020. It found a 16 percent increase from 2019, from a record 212,000 estimated hectares of coca to an even greater record of 245,000 hectares. This coca was potentially used, ONDCP estimated, to produce 1,010 metric tons of pure cocaine, up from 936 in 2019—an 8 percent increase.

The release notes that the cultivation increase happened despite Colombia’s government reporting a record 130,000 hectares of manual eradication of coca bushes, and the seizure of nearly 580 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base.

In 2020, the Trump administration’s ONDCP release covering 2019 had called for more forced coca eradication, including aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate. The government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this controversial U.S.-backed “fumigation” program in 2015 due to public health concerns, but the current government of Iván Duque has been working to reinstate it.

The June 25 ONDCP release barely mentions eradication. It makes no mention of the (now probably unreachable) objective of cutting coca cultivation in half by 2023, which the outgoing Santos administration had agreed with the Trump administration in 2018.

The U.S. estimate emerged about two weeks after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) made public its estimate of 2020 cultivation. (ONDCP and UNODC are the two institutions that estimate coca cultivation in the Andes.) Unlike the White House, the UN agency found a downward cultivation trendline. The UN estimate of 143,000 hectares is a 7 percent decrease from 2019, and 102,000 hectares fewer than what the U.S. government estimates.

While the two entities’ coca estimates are rarely close, it has been unusual for their trendlines to diverge, as has now happened for two consecutive years. The Colombian government considers the UN number to be “official” but does not publicly dispute the U.S. figure.

The UN estimate of Colombia’s potential 2020 cocaine production, however, increased by 8 percent from 2019 to 2020. More cocaine from fewer hectares probably means taller coca bushes, higher-yielding crops, and more robust chemical extraction methods. The UNODC estimate of Colombian cocaine production—1,228 metric tons—is, in fact, higher than the U.S. estimate (1,010).

“Technicians from both countries and the United Nations will review [the statistics] to identify methodological criteria necessary to harmonize for the next measurement cycle,” El Espectador reported. We know more about how the UN derives its estimates than we do about the U.S. methodology. In coming weeks, we can expect UNODC to publish a full report presenting crop monitoring trends by region. That report usually includes a discussion of how the agency relies on satellite imagery and closer monitoring of selected regions. The U.S. government has been more secretive; the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report points to much extrapolation, noting that it “conserves limited personnel and technical resources by employing sample survey methodologies to estimate illicit crop cultivation.”

Some protests continue as Colombia has difficult human rights discussions

The committee of civil-society leaders—mainly union leaders—who called for a national strike (Paro Nacional) on April 28, only to see protests go on for many weeks, have stopped calling for street demonstrations for now. They are taking their demands to Colombia’s Congress, where they plan to work with sympathetic legislators to introduce a raft of bills when the next legislative session begins on July 20. Labor leader Francisco Maltés told Reuters that if the Comité del Paro’s demands go unmet, an even greater national strike will take place during the second half of the year.

The Comité does not command all protesters, of course, and groups of mostly young people continued to take to the streets in Bogotá’s poorer southern neighborhoods, in “resistance” sites around Cali, and in Medellín, Bucaramanga, Pasto, and Popayán. While demonstrations and blockades were mostly peaceful, violence between police and protesters broke out several times during the week. A protester was killed in Bogotá. In Tuluá, north of Cali, the decapitated head of a young man who had participated in protests was found in a plastic bag; police blamed local drug trafficking gangs.

As the country eased COVID-19 restrictions before vaccines were widely available, Colombia now finds itself in a devastating third wave of infections and deaths. Colombia recorded more than 23,000 new infections per day in June, about three times as many as in March, Public Radio International reported. More than 600 people are dying every day, well over double the number in the United States right now. Only India and Brazil are seeing more death. Intensive-care wards in major cities are over 95 percent full.

The government and human rights defenders continue to disagree vehemently about the extent of human rights abuses committed by security forces.

Homicide

The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) counts 24 deaths linked to the protests and is investigating 11 more.

  • As of June 18, the widely cited NGO Temblores counted 43 homicides and was investigating 21 more.
  • As of June 22, an effort to cross and verify databases by the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacía found 47 people likely killed in the framework of protests, 44 of them protesters. La Silla notes that the Fiscalía is omitting 23 killed people from its statistic even though they appear to meet the agency’s criteria.
  • Voicing “deep concern about allegations of serious human rights violations by the state’s security forces,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council that “from April 28 to June 16 we have recorded allegations of 56 deaths, including 54 civilians and 2 police officers.” Bachelet’s remarks, which contrast with the Colombian government’s official figures, drew an angry response from Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Alicia Arango, who had drawn attention for troubling statements about killings of social leaders while in her previous post as interior minister.

Missing or disappeared people

A June 23 overview of people missing or disappeared in the context of the protests, compiled by La Liga Contra el Silencio, finds a variety of estimates of the missing, some of whom may still be in custody of the authorities. The Fiscalía counts 84 people who have yet to be found.

  • “Between April 28 and May 27, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances registered 775 missing persons, of which 327 have yet to be found.”
  • “In the report that Temblores ONG, Indepaz and PAIIS delivered to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) during its visit to Colombia, 346 people were reported missing directly to these entities between April 28 and May 31.”
  • Just in the department of Valle del Cauca, of which Cali is the capital, “the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network has a report of 179 people missing since the strike began. Of these, 75 remain unaccounted for. …More than twenty of the people found had been taken to police stations and held without the right to communicate with their families. Some of them had wounds from firearms and sharp weapons, and signs of torture.”

The La Liga investigation recounts the experience of a Bogotá protester who, after being detained, was one of several young men kept in the back of a truck that uniformed police drove around the city nonstop, changing drivers, for more than two days while they threatened to kill their captives.

Gender-based and sexual violence

  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría), which has come under fire and may be undergoing senior management changes after a less-than-vigorous response to the protests’ human rights situation, counts at least 113 cases of gender-based violence, the BBC reports.
  • Temblores counts 28 cases of protesters being sexually abused.

Police reform?

The need to reform Colombia’s National Police, which President Duque acknowledged with a series of modest proposals on June 6, continues to be a frequent topic of discussion.

  • Ingrid Betancourt, the former FARC hostage, raised it in a June 21 meeting with Duque. “What we have seen is that the security forces confronted them as if they were confronting the traditional enemies of this war, without the peace transition having happened,” Betancourt told El Tiempo. “The security forces have not been able to adapt to the new reality of peace.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano sent a letter to Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa refusing Barbosa’s June 1 request to provide information about protest-related human rights cases currently before the military justice system. Molano said that, due to recent reforms, the military courts are no longer under his direct command, and that it is up to the judges in each case to share information.
  • American actor Kendrick Sampson, who is Black, wrote in El Espectador of extreme hostility from police while on a visit to Cartagena last December. “Two police officers pulled up behind me, yelling and gesturing for me to face the wall. This was the sixth time I had experienced Cartagena’s stop and frisk policy in five days.I thought I knew what to expect, but this time was far more violent.” He concluded, “Our political leaders are funneling the bulk of our taxes into violent, militarized policing and the oppression of Black and Indigenous communities worldwide, instead of bringing adequate housing, healing and care.”
  • La Silla Vacía’s Daniel Pacheco sat down with a group of police, who voiced grievance and a sense that the allegations against them are unfair and out of context. “If you make a mistake in your actions, if you do wrong, if you go too far, go to jail, my friend. But if you do nothing, you just lost your life, my friend.”
  • A Datexco poll gave President Duque an approval rating of just 16 percent, with 79 percent disapproval. 31 percent of Colombians surveyed approve of the National Police, compared with 64 percent disapproval. (March 2020 was the first time Datexco found the Police with higher disapproval than approval.) The Police’s anti-riot unit, the ESMAD, had 28 percent approval and 66 percent disapproval. The Army is still in positive territory, with 56 percent approval and 38 percent disapproval.

Congress lets peace accord bill expire

On June 21 Colombia’s Congress finished a legislative session that had begun on July 20, 2020. While Interior Minister Daniel Palacios celebrated that the legislature passed 49 laws during the past year, the session ended with the Senate failing to bring up for debate a law necessary to implement key elements of the 2016 peace accord.

The “Agrarian Specialty” law intended to fulfill a key commitment of the accord’s first chapter, which covers “comprehensive rural reform,” seeking to address issues of land tenure, rural inequality, and lack of state presence that have underlain so much of the armed conflict.

The law would have established a system of judges specializing in rural issues. While Colombia’s cities have 11 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, the country’s notoriously abandoned rural areas have only 6 judges per 100,000. Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute, which the peace accord gives a formal role in monitoring implementation, noted in May that “other important Point 1 [chapter 1] commitments depend on the implementation of this system.”

The bill passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, with apparent support from President Duque’s governing Centro Democrático (CD) party. But it ran into trouble in the Senate, even as it sailed through committee on May 25 by an 18-3 vote. The three opponents were CD senators.

Ultraconservative CD Senator María Fernanda Cabal, an outspoken defender of large landholders’ interests (her husband heads Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation, Fedegán), began to campaign against the bill. Cabal, La Silla Vacía reports, “recorded a video urging peasants to call their senators to oppose the ‘dangerous desk law’ that would create ‘an agrarian JEP where judges will begin to persecute rural property.’”

The congressional session neared its end without the bill coming up for Senate consideration. President Duque and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz told foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, that the Agrarian Specialty law would move ahead. But it did not. La Silla Vacía alleges that Duque was saying one thing and doing quite another.

The reason [for the bill’s expiration], as La Silla was able to confirm with two sources who have ways to know, was that the Government expressly asked [Senate President Arturo] Char not to place it on the agenda. Calendarizing is a key step for a bill to be voted on the following day.

“The Colombian Senate adjourned its session and did not consider the Agricultural Specialty Law,” tweeted Rep. Juanita Goebertus, who before her election was a member of the government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana. “The government committed to moving it forward. The Minister of Justice lied and betrayed his word. They swore to the entire international community that they are implementing the peace accord, and they’re laughing in our faces.”

Longtime maximum ELN leader quits

After 23 years as top commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, Nicolás Rodríguez Batista alias “Gabino” is standing down at age 71. Rodríguez joined the ELN as a 14-year-old in 1965. He is among guerrilla leaders who remain in Cuba after the 2019 collapse of peace talks, and has been getting medical treatment there since 2018.

His replacement atop the group’s loose chain of command is longtime top leader Antonio García (the alias of Eliécer Chamorro Acosta), who is considered a hardline ideologue but has participated in past dialogues with the government. The new number-two ELN leader is alias Pablo Beltrán, who also remains in Cuba; he was the chief guerrilla negotiator during the peace process that failed following a January 2019 guerrilla bombing of Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The new number three leader, Pablo Marín, also known as “Pablito,” commanded the ELN’s largest unit, the Eastern War Front located in and around Arauca, and across the border in Venezuela. He is probably a skeptic of peace negotiations. Fighters under Marín’s command almost certainly carried out the 2019 bombing.

Links

  • “Given the large volume of reports we have received from Colombia since the start of the national strike on April 28, we are releasing English-language information about these human rights violations in two parts,” begins WOLA’s latest regular overview of Colombia’s human rights situation. It is, sadly, a long document.
  • Colombia’s Defense Minister and National Police Chief told those at a June 22 press conference that Dairo Úsuga alias “Otoniel,” the maximum head of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, is “cornered and going hungry” as security forces pursue him in the country’s northwest.
  • A graphical update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports a 101% increase in forced displacement in Colombia from January to May 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. The agency counted 29,252 people displaced in 63 events, with Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca the hardest-hit departments.
  • Senators Rick Scott (R-Florida), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a resolution supporting Colombia’s government and condemning “efforts to undermine democracy.” It makes no mention of the Colombian security forces’ human rights record in the context of recent protests. Four Florida Republican House of Representatives members introduced an identical resolution in their chamber.
  • Former top leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary confederation, who demobilized in the mid-2000s, told a transitional justice judge that they feel unprotected and fear for their lives. Among those participating virtually in the hearing was former maximum AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is in a U.S. immigration detention center, fighting deportation to Colombia after serving a drug trafficking sentence in U.S. prison. They said that 4,000 of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who demobilized in the so-called “Justice and Peace Process” have since been killed, some of them in Colombian prisons.
  • The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported that six members of the Jivi indigenous nation were killed by ex-FARC dissident fighters in the state of Apure, which borders Colombia and has seen combat between dissidents and Venezuelan forces since March. The crime may have been retribution for the indigenous people’s theft of government food handouts from a truck.
  • El Espectador profiles 11 social leaders and local government officials in Arauca whom authorities arrested in the early morning hours of May 27. Prosecutors allege that they are part of the support network for the “10th Front” ex-FARC group, believed to be aligned with dissident leader Gentil Duarte.
  • The Bogotá-based think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of political violence, reports a decline in deaths resulting from political violence since December 2020.

Weekly Border Update: June 25, 2021

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

Vice President Harris visits El Paso

Vice President Kamala Harris paid an approximately four-hour visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. She traveled with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and El Paso’s House representative, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas).

She toured Border Patrol’s “central processing center” for apprehended migrants, attended an operational briefing with border agencies, and met with representatives of several El Paso non-governmental service providers and humanitarian organizations. (The list included Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Annunciation House, Border Network for Human Rights, and Hope Border Institute. WOLA published a June 24 memo laying out some key issues for the trip, along with a Twitter thread suggesting effective organizations, including all of these, with whom the Vice President could meet.)

At a mid-day press conference before departing for California, the Vice President said that her encounters with migrant children were a reminder “of the fact that this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue.”

President Joe Biden has given Harris a lead role in engaging with Mexico and Central America on efforts to address migration’s “root causes.” Harris has sought to deflect the perception—which shows up often in Republican statements—that her role includes border security or that she is some sort of “border czar.”

Her El Paso visit comes after weeks of calls from Republican legislators (and a few border Democrats) that she visit the border to view firsthand what they call a “crisis” caused by increased migration. The announcement of her visit, issued June 23, came a few days after ex-president Donald Trump accepted an invitation from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) to visit the border. Trump, who will visit south Texas’s Hidalgo County on June 30, responded, “If Governor Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!”

The White House denies any relation. “The reason why it’s important that she go down: She’s now set up the criteria, having spoken with the President of Mexico and Guatemala, visited the region to know what we need to do,” President Biden said on June 24. Vice-Presidential spokesperson Symone Sanders said it was important for Harris first to visit Guatemala and Mexico, which she did in early June, as part of a “cause and effect” strategy.

Sanders said Harris chose to visit the border at El Paso because it was the “birthplace” of Donald Trump’s family separation policy—it was first rolled out there in late 2017. Republicans attacked the choice because El Paso, though busy right now, is seeing a less-heavy flow of migrants compared to border sectors further east in Texas and west in Arizona.

Alarming glimpses into conditions at Fort Bliss child shelter

Harris’s agenda did not include a visit to the massive emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, currently operated by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) via a contractor at Fort Bliss, a giant army base adjacent to El Paso’s airport.

This facility, known as an Emergency Intake Site (EIS), was thrown together in March when Border Patrol processing centers were jammed with several thousand migrant children, mostly from Central America, who had arrived at the border unaccompanied. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is meant to take custody of these children while arranging to have them stay with relatives or other sponsors in the United States while their protection needs are evaluated. ORR quickly ran out of space, however, leading to the establishment of several large, austere facilities at convention centers and similar spaces around the country.

The Fort Bliss space—a series of giant climate-controlled tents—is the largest. It can hold up to 10,000 children, and reached 5,000 in April. By mid-June, that number had dropped to 2,300. About 14,500 children remain in ORR’s shelters nationwide. 

Emergency facilities like Fort Bliss continue to lack enough caseworkers to locate children’s families and sponsors. This has forced some children to stay at the facilities, essentially warehoused with little to do, for long periods. The average nationwide stay is 37 days. At Fort Bliss, government data shared with CBS News indicate that more than 100 children have been on base for more than 60 days, 16 of them since the site opened on March 30.

Though access to Fort Bliss is restricted, very troubling accounts have emerged about conditions. Information comes from Rep. Escobar, shelter workers who have spoken to press, and from a federal filing from lawyers who visited to monitor compliance with the 1997 Flores judicial agreement setting standards for migrant childcare.

“Children at the Fort Bliss EIS sleep in rows of bunk cots in giant tents with hundreds of other children, enjoy no privacy, receive almost no structured education, have little to do during the day, and lack adequate mental health care to address children’s severe anxiety and distress surrounding their prolonged detention,” reads a filing from the attorneys.

CBS News had further alarming revelations:

  • Some children have required one-on-one, 24-hour supervision “to ensure they don’t hurt themselves.”
  • Some children are refusing food or spending most of their days sleeping in their bunk-bed cots.
  • Self-cutting appears common. The shelter has “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers and regular toothbrushes inside tents,” and is even removing metal nose clips from N95 face masks. A 13-year-old Honduran girl told the attorneys “some teens used their identification cards to cut themselves.”

BBC reported accounts of substandard food, including uncooked meat, and children unwilling to shower for many days at a time for lack of clean clothes to change into. Far more seriously, shelter employees shared sexual abuse allegations with BBC, including a possible rape and a contractor “caught in a boy’s tent, you know, doing things with him.”

On June 25 HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra promised a “thorough investigation” of allegations at Fort Bliss. Tyler Moran, who covers immigration at the White House Domestic Policy council, told reporters on June 22 that efforts are underway to add 50 mental health professionals and more caseworkers, as recommended in a June 24 memo from the ACLU of Texas.

“Remain in Mexico” dismantlement expands, Title 42 phaseout may accelerate

One of the Biden administration’s first actions at the border was to end the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” This was a Trump-era program that forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on the other side of the border, in Mexico. While waiting in dangerous border towns for months or years, at least 1,544 migrants subjected to MPP suffered rape, murder, kidnapping, assault, or other serious attacks, according to a count kept by Human Rights First.

In February, the Biden administration began admitting into the United States those “remaining” in Mexico who still had pending court dates. By the end of May, 10,375 people with active asylum cases had re-entered the United States, according to TRAC Immigration, to await their hearings north of the border, usually with U.S. resident relatives.

It was unclear, though, whether there would be any redress for people in MPP who had their cases terminated while they were subjected to the program. According to TRAC’s data, 30,705 people had their asylum applications denied “in absentia,” meaning they failed to show up for their scheduled hearings.

This week, DHS announced that this asylum-seeking population will get another chance. “Beginning June 23, 2021, DHS will include MPP enrollees who had their cases terminated or were ordered removed in absentia (i.e., individuals ordered removed while not present at their hearings),” reads a memo to Congress obtained by BuzzFeed.

DHS Secretary Mayorkas had expressed doubt about whether the Remain in Mexico program was giving asylum seekers “adequate opportunity” to appear in court, the Los Angeles Times reports, “and whether conditions faced by some MPP enrollees in Mexico, including the lack of stable access to housing, income, and safety, resulted in the abandonment of potentially meritorious protection claims.” In some cases, migrants missed their MPP hearings because they had been kidnapped in Mexico and were in the custody of criminal groups.

It’s not clear how many of these 30,705 people would actually show up and avail themselves of the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States. Michele Klein Solomon, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) director for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, told the Associated Press that she expected at least 10,000 people—one-third of the “denied in absentia” population—to appear.

While dismantling MPP, the Biden administration has mostly kept in place another Trump blockage of the right to seek asylum: the “Title 42” pandemic policy mandating that undocumented migrants be rapidly expelled—and that migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle be expelled into Mexico.

Between February and May, the Biden administration used Title 42 to expel migrants 408,000 times, including more than 58,000 members of families—with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. A June 22 report from Human Rights First counted “3,250 kidnappings and other attacks, including rape, human trafficking, and violent armed assaults, against asylum seekers and migrants expelled to or blocked at the U.S.-Mexico border since President Biden took office in January 2021.” HRF found that DHS aggravates the situation by expelling many migrants late at night, “placing expelled people at increased risk of kidnapping and other harm.”

For families at least, that may end soon. Axios reported on June 20 that “The White House is considering ending—as early as July 31—the use of” Title 42 expulsions of family unit members. “President Biden has been briefed on a plan for stopping family expulsions by the end of July, as well as the option of letting a court end it.” The White House seems to be favoring calling an end to the policy rather than keep defending it in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

On June 24 the New York Times confirmed the Axios reporting: “It is possible that in the coming weeks, border officials could start allowing migrant families back into the country, with an eye toward lifting the rule for single adults this summer.” The most likely plan would be to place families asking for asylum into alternatives-to-detention programs in the United States—probably involving GPS ankle monitors—until their court dates in a badly backlogged immigration court system.

Under this plan, single adults would still be expelled for a while. “Lifting the public health rule for single adults is likely to come later, according to the most recent discussions, possibly by the end of the summer,” the Times reports. Single adults are the vast majority of those who are expelled, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been expelling 86 percent of those whom it encounters at the border. NBC News reported that the agency is even resuming “lateral expulsion” flights for single adults, taking some from the busy border sectors where they are apprehended, then expelling them back into Mexico in sectors that are seeing a less heavy flow of migrants, like El Paso and San Diego.

The Times expects that lifting Title 42 for asylum-seeking families by the end of July “is likely to sharply increase the flow of migrants, at least in the short term.” That may be, for families. For migrants who wish to avoid being apprehended, though—like single adults who don’t seek asylum—it’s possible that lifting Title 42 could lead to fewer encounters at the border. The pandemic period, since mid-2020, saw a very sharp increase in Border Patrol encounters with single adults seeking to avoid apprehension. This was in large part because being rapidly expelled, and not detained or charged, made it easier to cross back into the United States and try again. Without Title 42 easing repeat attempts, that sharp increase in single adult migration could fade.

Border Patrol Chief exits

In a message to his personal Facebook account, Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott made known that the Biden administration had given him a “three R letter,” meaning “resign, retire, or relocate.” Chief Scott, who had been on the job for 17 months, will stay on for up to 60 days before leaving the force.

Scott, who served most of his tenure as chief during Donald Trump’s final year in office, appeared to be supportive of the former president. “Scott appeared several times alongside Trump, eagerly defending his hard-line policies, leading some colleagues to privately express concern that Scott’s enthusiasm occasionally veered into partisanship,” the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff noted this week. As a result, “several of his current and former colleagues [were] surprised he remained in the post” as long as he did, even as he and other senior officials “chafed at Biden’s reversal of Trump policies they viewed as effective,” like Remain in Mexico. His exit was “completely driven by politics,” an unnamed source told the Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli.

Scott’s successor will be his deputy, Raúl Ortiz, according to a statement from acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller. (The Post had earlier reported that Ortiz would serve “on an interim basis,” but that is not clear.) Like Scott, Ortiz has been on the force for 29 years. He was a featured guest during Donald Trump’s February 2020 State of the Union speech. The Examiner reports that his most likely successor as deputy chief will be either San Diego Sector Chief Aaron Heitke, Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings, or El Paso Sector Chief Gloria Chavez.

CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency, continues without a confirmed commissioner to fill the role Miller is playing on an acting basis. The Biden administration named Tucson, Arizona Police Chief Chris Magnus in April, but like many Senate nominations, it is moving very slowly through the chamber.

Links

  • The Republican governors of Florida, Idaho, Iowa, and Nebraska have responded to a call from the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas, Doug Ducey and Greg Abbott, to send law-enforcement personnel to the border. Iowa and Nebraska will each send about two dozen uniformed officers to Texas and/or Arizona for a couple of weeks. Gov. Abbott set up a website for private donations for the state government to build its own border wall; it received $459,000 in about a week. While that sounds like a lot, at the going rate of about $26 million per mile in Texas, it would only build 0.02 miles of wall. The Texas governor’s portrayal of the area as a danger zone is hurting tourism and other business in the border region, local leaders say.
  • In the dangerous Mexican border city of Reynosa, where U.S. agencies have expelled thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers and families under Title 42, June 19 was a day of citywide attacks and firefights between three factions of the Gulf drug cartel and law enforcement, killing 19 people. Of the dead, 15 appeared to be innocent bystanders, the Associated Press reports. The surrounding Mexican state of Tamaulipas has long been under the influence of the Gulf and Zetas cartels, but those groups have fragmented. Now, the Mexican daily Milenio cites government intelligence reports mapping territorial disputes between six groups. The United States’ Title 42 expulsions into Tamaulipas “continue to endanger the migrant population” while “organized crime groups are taking advantage of the situation,” according to a new report by Global Response Management, a humanitarian organization that has assisted asylum seekers stranded in Tamaulipas by “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 expulsions.
  • Touring the border in the Rio Grande Valley, Border Report finds a profusion of makeshift wooden and rope ladders being used to scale the border wall. “When agents find the ladders, they pile them up just north of the wall. Once a week, a truck is sent down the dirt trail road that lines the border wall to gather and haul them all away.” The climbs are dangerous: “Almost daily, we receive two to three calls of individuals getting hurt,” a Border Patrol agent says. “Some more serious than others — fractured bones protruding from skin that will need medical attention. Other times, it’s just a sprain.”
  • Just over the state line from El Paso, in New Mexico, “Five times in the past four weeks, Sunland Park police or firefighters have assisted U.S. Border Patrol agents at places where migrants died of heat exhaustion or from falls” from the wall, Border Report notes.
  • A 51-year-old Bahamian man died of a heart attack last December when staff at a Natchez, Mississippi ICE detention center failed to provide an adequate medical response, according to a draft DHS Inspector-General report obtained by BuzzFeed. The detention center is run by CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based for-profit contractor.
  • Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represent border districts, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) voiced support for vaccinating migrants, like asylum seekers, who are allowed to cross into the United States.
  • Together with the country’s National Guard, Mexico’s migration authority, the National Migration Institute (INM), ran two deportation flights to Caribbean nations this week. It sent 89 Cuban migrants to Havana and 97 Haitian migrants to Port-au-Prince. INM also detained 241 Central American migrants at a warehouse in Puebla and 116 at a residence in Tamaulipas.

Weekly Border Update: June 18, 2021

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

CBP data points to a rise in migrants from “other” countries

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on June 9 that in May, its agents encountered 180,034 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. 8,023 of these “encounters” took place at official border ports of entry. 172,011 happened in the spaces between the ports of entry, where Border Patrol operates.

The Border Patrol number is a very slight reduction from April, when the agency encountered 173,686 undocumented migrants between ports of entry. Encounters with unaccompanied children dropped by 18 percent from April to May, and encounters with members of families dropped by 16 percent. Single adults increased 8 percent.

Download a PDF of border graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.

The May “encounters” number appeared to be the largest since April 2000, when Border Patrol apprehended 180,050 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, there is some double-counting. 38 percent of the agency’s May encounters were with people whom it had already encountered at least once in the previous 12 months.

Of May’s 172,011 encounters, then, only about 107,000 were “new” people. That is still a very high monthly number by the standards of the past 15 years at the border, but it means that the number of newly encountered people in May 2021 was significantly smaller than in May 2019 (which was perhaps 124,000 people, at that year’s recidivism rate). “The trend of border apprehensions in May is a reduction of individuals (unique encounters) and families below the peak in 2019,” reads a White House release.

A 38 percent “recidivism rate” is probably unprecedented. That number averaged 15 percent of Border Patrol’s “encountered” migrants between 2014 and 2019, and it rose to 26 percent in 2020. The reason for the increase is the pandemic response. Under a COVID-19 border measure known as “Title 42,” Border Patrol is rapidly expelling most migrants it finds, sending Mexicans and residents of some other countries back across into Mexico without detaining them. The quick procedure makes it relatively easy for migrants to attempt to cross again.

Of Border Patrol’s 897,213 “encounters” with migrants between ports of entry since October, 137,176—15 percent—were not from Mexico or from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries. That’s up from 11 percent from “other countries” in 2020, and 9 percent in 2019. In May, the “other countries” share was even larger: 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters. Last month, the agency encountered more citizens of Ecuador (11,655) than El Salvador (10,011).

In May, the non-Mexican, non-Northern Triangle countries whose citizens Border Patrol “encountered” most were Ecuador (11,655 May encounters, up 110% since March); Venezuela (7,371, up 213%); Brazil (7,366, up 85%); Nicaragua (4,354, up 126%); Haiti (2,704, down 12%); Cuba (2,611, down 54%); and Romania (1,203, up 214%). The Romanians are mainly members of the oft-persecuted Roma ethnic group, as Reuters reported in late May.

The 2020-21 year-on-year nationality numbers are also striking. They show great variation in the parts of the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants of different nationalities tend to arrive. Central Americans and Ecuadorians tend to arrive in south Texas and the El Paso-New Mexico area. Brazilians and Indians arrive overwhelmingly in the westernmost border sectors. Cubans and Venezuelans are arriving in sparsely populated areas: west Texas’s Del Rio sector and western Arizona’s Yuma sector (many Venezuelans are also arriving in central Arizona). The Del Rio sector has seen the largest percentage increase in migration from 2020 to 2021.

Download a PDF of border graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.
Download a PDF of border graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.

A few other facts about May, from CBP and from Mexico’s migration authorities:

  • As in March (63%) and April (64%), Border Patrol expelled 64 percent of migrants it encountered, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority.
  • Virtually no unaccompanied children were expelled, as has been the case since mid-November.
  • Border Patrol expelled 22 percent of apprehended family unit members, down from 37 percent in April and 40 percent in March. The number of family members allowed into the United States, in most cases to begin asylum proceedings, has stayed very steady since March: 31,973 in March, 30,502 in April, and 31,722 in May.
  • As in March (88%) and April (86%), Border Patrol expelled 86 percent of single adults it encountered.
  • 68 percent of encountered migrants were single adults. This is vastly different from May 2019, when only 28 percent were single adults. (This includes some double counting due to recidivism.)
  • Between January and May, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR had received 41,195 requests for asylum in Mexico. That five-month total exceeds COMAR’s asylum requests in all of 2020 (41,179). 46 percent of requesters were from Honduras, followed by Haiti (17%) and Cuba (9%).
  • In April, the latest available month, Mexican authorities apprehended 18,709 migrants, the most since July 2019.

Biden administration loosens two Trump-era restrictions on asylum

The Department of Justice this week reversed a Trump administration restriction on eligibility for asylum, while the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated a program extending protection to some Central American children.

On June 16 Attorney-General Merrick Garland reversed decisions from his Trump-era predecessors, Jeff Sessions and William Barr, that severely restricted asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. In the U.S. system, immigration courts are part of the executive-branch Department of Justice. This makes the attorney-general the maximum “judge” setting guidelines for immigration judges to follow.

In 2018, in a case called “the matter of A-B,” Sessions had overruled a prior decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had fled domestic violence. In 2019, in the “L-E-A” case, Barr determined that relatives of a Mexican man targeted by a criminal organization (in this case, the hyper-violent Familia Michoacana cartel) did not qualify as members of a “particular social group” eligible for asylum.

These two decisions had severely restricted possibilities of gaining U.S. asylum for tens of thousands of migrants, especially Central Americans, who had come to the United States fleeing abusive partners or violent gangs. “In the year after his [Sessions’s] decision,” the New York Times noted, “rates of asylum granted to people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras plunged 38 percent.” Attorney-General Garland’s decision, a response to an executive order from the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, restores asylum eligibility to what it was before the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, on June 15 the Departments of State and Homeland Security announced an expansion of the recently restored Central American Minors (CAM) Program, allows parents living legally in the United States to petition to have their children in Central America reunited with them. A few thousand children gained admittance to the United States through the CAM during the last years of the Obama administration, but the Trump administration shut down the program in 2018.

President Biden had ordered the program’s reinstatement shortly after taking office. The June 15 announcement expands the CAM, adding new categories of adults who may petition for their children to join them. Now, legal guardians and parents who are still awaiting decisions on their status, including asylum-seekers, may also apply. An unnamed official told the Los Angeles Times that as many as 100,000 petitioners may now be eligible.

Once the parents apply, the CAM program interviews the children in Central America to determine whether they qualify for refugee resettlement status. If they do not qualify, they may still be granted humanitarian parole—a temporary residency status that does not place the children on a path to citizenship, CBS News explains.

Texas’s governor wants to build a wall

At a June 16 press conference in Austin, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) announced that “In the Biden Administration’s absence, Texas is stepping up to get the job done by building the border wall.” Abbott asked his state’s Facilities Commission to hire a program manager to oversee border wall construction.

Abbott’s administration said it would transfer $250 million from the prison system’s budget to a “down payment” on a state border wall. (Texas already spends $1.1 billion in state funds on what it categorizes as “border security.”)

It cost the Trump administration about $26.5 million per mile to build border wall in Texas; at that rate, Abbott’s “down payment” would be enough to build 9 1/2 miles of wall. At least 1,100 miles of Texas’s border is unfenced. “My guess is that if Texas has the willingness to go through multiple years of litigation, it will be able to build a smattering of wall sections,” former Bush administration DHS official Stewart Verdery told the Washington Examiner.

In Texas, most border land is privately owned. Abbott’s “program manager” will have to “identify state land and land that private landowners and local governments can volunteer for the wall,” the governor’s office’s release reads. The state land commissioner, George P. Bush, said he would grant emergency authorization to build wall on state-owned lands.

While costly private land seizures through the eminent domain process are certain to slow the Governor’s plans, he is also seeking donations of land and money, including through a website. In 2011, Arizona’s state government set up a similar wall-building donation website with a goal of raising $50 million. It ultimately collected $270,000.

While states are not empowered to enforce immigration law, Abbott signaled that he would have state police arrest migrants on charges like trespassing or smuggling, regardless of their intention to seek asylum, and to hold them in newly built jails near the border. Imprisoning parents who arrive with children would cause a new wave of family separations. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) announced that it is considering filing an injunction against Abbott’s “abuse of power and using refugee children as political piñatas.”

“We are being invaded,” Lieutenant-Governor Dan Patrick said at the Governor’s press conference. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been more true.” He added that a 14-year-old Central American boy who arrives that the border would probably turn into a criminal: “You can’t put a 14-year-old in a fifth grade class. What is his future? Crime, low wages. No future.” Migrant advocates reacted sharply to this “invasion” rhetoric, similar to that used by a mass shooter who killed 23 people at an El Paso Wal-Mart in August 2019. “If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” tweeted El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar (D).

As he eyes a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Abbott is already trying to revoke licenses for federally funded shelters housing unaccompanied migrant children in Texas. He has also invited former president Donald Trump to come to the border; a visit is likely on June 30.

Together with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), he has called on “fellow governors” to send law-enforcement personnel to the Texas border. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) answered this call on June 16, announcing that state police and some county officers—mainly from the state’s western panhandle region—would head to the Texas border. “It isn’t clear what exactly the Florida officers will be doing at the border or how the mutual aid agreement will work out legally, logistically or strategically,” the Pensacola News Journal reported. DeSantis cited a jump in methamphetamine availability in Florida. About 90 percent of methamphetamine detected at the border, however, is found at official ports of entry, not the spaces in between where Florida law enforcement personnel would presumably be deployed.

GAO issues three reports and decisions about the border

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a U.S. Congress agency that carries out rigorous audits and evaluations, issued three documents related to the U.S.-Mexico border this week. Two covered the border wall.

On June 15, GAO responded to 122 House and Senate Republicans’ request for a ruling on the legality of President Biden January 20 order pausing border wall construction. Appropriations law requires that Biden spend money specifically assigned for border barrier construction, and the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires the President to spend appropriations as directed by Congress.

GAO determined that Biden has not broken the law by pausing wall construction: what has happened so far are “programmatic delays, not impoundments,” and he does not have to spend the money immediately, or could alter how it is spent while still meeting the “border barrier” definition. (The White House’s 2022 budget request goes further, asking Congress to cancel these previous unspent appropriations.) Unlike former president Trump’s refusal to provide assistance to Ukraine—part of his 2019 impeachment—“the delay here is precipitated by legal requirements,” GAO concluded.

A June 17 report looks into the money that President Trump, using an emergency declaration, wrested from the Defense Department’s budget in 2019 and 2020 to build border walls as quickly as possible. GAO found that in response to the Trump administration’s demands, the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw wall construction, obligated $10.6 billion for construction contracts. $4.3 billion of that was for “noncompetitive contracts,” which are usually more expensive. 88 percent of the $10.6 billion went to four contractors and two of their subsidiaries.

In the end, by the time President Biden called a halt to wall construction on January 20, the Trump administration had built a full “border wall system”—with electrical hookups, access roads, and similar components—on only 69 miles of the border. The approximately 400 miles of other new and replacement wall was primarily fencing panels without the accompanying components. “While the wall panels are typically the most costly part of border barrier construction, the full wall system remains incomplete,” GAO found.

On June 11, the Biden administration had returned $2 billion of this “emergency” funding back to the Defense Department, where it will be used for military construction programs that were delayed in 2019 and 2020.

The House of Representatives had challenged the Trump administration’s 2019 emergency declaration, alleging that the president had made an end-run around a Congress that refused to approve wall funding. That case is before the Supreme Court, but the Biden administration has asked that it be dropped because the executive branch opposes the precedent of one house of Congress being able to take spending disputes to court.

On June 14, GAO issued a report about how CBP responded to, and was affected by, the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that through February 2021, more than 7,000 of CBP’s 54,500 employees had contracted COVID-19, and 24 died. “Employee absences didn’t generally have a significant impact at air, land, or sea ports, which saw declining traffic, officials told” GAO.

Border Patrol responded to the pandemic, GAO found, by deploying agents closer to the borderline, moving away from interior checkpoints and “nonessential activities” further into the U.S. interior. It also responded with the Title 42 expulsions policy. By rapidly sending most migrants back across the border into Mexico, GAO found, agents reduced their exposure to COVID-19 but also lost opportunities to gain intelligence by interviewing migrants about smugglers and other illegal activity at the border.

Links

  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mexico on June 14-15, his first international trip as secretary. He met with several cabinet members. “We have challenged one another with respect to what more can each of us do to address the level of irregular migration that has persisted for several months,” Mayorkas told reporters, as he echoed Vice President Kamala Harris’s “do not come” message to would-be migrants. Mayorkas discussed with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard the possibility of phasing out pandemic restrictions on cross-border trade and travel, though no details emerged. Ebrard also raised the issue of southbound flows of weapons purchased in the United States.
  • USAID Administrator Samantha Power also paid a five-day visit to Central America from June 13 to 17, which included several meetings with prominent civil-society figures.
  • Experts from WOLA’s Mexico and Central America/Citizen Security programs published an analysis of U.S. officials’ visits, with a series of recommendations for addressing migration’s “root causes,” engaging with Mexico, and collaborating on a rights-respecting approach to migration.
  • Secretary Mayorkas testified in the House Homeland Security Committee on June 17 about his department’s 2022 budget request. The hearing was notable mainly for several testy exchanges with Republican members.
  • The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published reports about families separating on the Mexican side of the border, usually after U.S. authorities expel them under the Title 42 “public health” order. The parents are forced to send their kids across to the United States alone, as unaccompanied children do not get expelled.
  • Janine Bouey, a former LAPD officer and veteran, filed a complaint against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and DHS alleging that CBP agents sexually assaulted her at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry. She got no result after filing an earlier complaint; this one, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, has an assist from Alliance San Diego.
  • Two soldiers based at Fort Hood, Texas were arrested at a Border Patrol checkpoint as they drove a civilian vehicle, in uniform, with two undocumented Mexican migrants aboard.
  • A 7,000-word Rolling Stone chronicle by Seth Harp finds that Mexico’s Gulf Cartel has come to dominate the migrant smuggling business along the easternmost 250 miles of Mexico’s side of the border, in Tamaulipas. (In fact, Harp explains, coyotes are independent, but have to pay the cartel a fee.)
  • The Associated Press reported on the psychological trauma suffered by unaccompanied migrant children held at the massive emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, while they wait for caseworkers to connect them with relatives or sponsors inside the United States. “Some had marks on their arms indicating self-harm, and federal volunteers were ordered to keep out scissors, pencils or even toothbrushes that could be used as a weapon. While girls made origami and braided friendship bracelets, a large number of the children spent the day sleeping, the volunteer [AP’s source] said. Some had been there nearly two months.”
  • The House Appropriations Committee will mark up (amend and approve drafts of) the 2022 Homeland Security appropriations budget legislation: in its Homeland Security Subcommittee on June 30 and in the full Appropriations Committee on July 13.

Can the United States “do much about” Nicaragua?

Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.

This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.

Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.

Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)

I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.

Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.

Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.

Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.

All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.

U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.

Colombia Peace Update: June 5, 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.

(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 19.)

Protests, negotiations, violence, and human rights violations continue

June 4 marked the 38th day of Colombia’s National Strike, probably the longest in more than 70 years. June 4 also saw the 12th meeting between government officials and the Strike Committee: a group of civil society representatives, including a large contingent of union leaders, who first called the Strike on April 28. Such meetings have been taking place since May 16.

The talks have not been advancing. Much of the discussion over the past week centered on the government’s demand that the Strike Committee call for an end to road blockades, which have choked off strategic roads between cities, leading to shortages and economic paralysis. The Committee meanwhile demands that the government do more to guarantee the physical security of protesters, including a softening of the security forces’ harsh and at times fatal crowd control tactics.

After a day of talks on June 3—cut short because government negotiators wanted to watch a Colombia-Peru soccer game—government representatives celebrated that agreement had been reached on 16 of 31 proposed preconditions to be met in order to move on to thematic negotiations. Speaking for the Strike Committee, Luciano Sanín of the NGO Viva la Ciudadanía said, “On 16 points we have an agreement, 11 need to be clarified, and on 9 there are major discrepancies, on issues such as the non-involvement of the military in protests, the autonomy of local authorities in the management of protests, the non-use of firearms in protests, the conditions for the intervention of the ESMAD [Police Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad] in protests, and the mechanism for monitoring the agreement.”

Nelson Alarcón of Colombia’s FECODE teachers’ union was also pessimistic about the 16 agreements: “That’s nothing at all, we had already reached a pre-agreement on 34 measures that the government dismantled with its comments.” Alarcón refers to a pre-agreement that the two sides had reached on May 24, but which the government ended up rejecting on May 27, by demanding that the Strike Committee lift road blockades before going any further. At the time, the National Police counted about 200 blockades around the country.

It appears that, on the government side, politicians from the hard line of the governing Centro Democrático party got the upper hand. The party’s founder, former president Álvaro Uribe, called for “rejecting any negotiation with the Committee, because negotiating with blockades and violence is to continue with the destruction of democracy.”

Strike Committee members allege that the government has adopted a strategy of delaying and hoping that the protests lose energy. La Silla Vacía observed that in the street, “there is no longer the same mobilization strength of the first weeks.” Fabio Arias of the CUT labor union told El Tiempo, “we know with absolute certainty they are mamando gallo [roughly, ‘jerking us around’].”

President Iván Duque insisted on the importance of ending road blockades before continuing negotiations: “Blockades are not a matter of negotiation, they are not a matter of tradeoffs, much less of transaction. They have to be rejected by everyone.” On May 30, thousands of people protesting the blockades marched in several Colombian cities; a Colombian Presidency communiqué celebrated that “thousands of Colombians, on behalf of millions, have sent a clear message.”

Legal groups like DeJusticia say peaceful blockades that don’t affect the rights of others are a form of free speech. The Strike Committee moved during the week to lift some of the most damaging blockades at key highway chokepoints, which had been carrying a significant public opinion cost for the protesters. “There are more than 40 ‘points of resistance’ that have been suspended thanks to the de-escalation,” Alarcón of FECODE said on June 1. “Today, therefore, the national government has no excuse to say that it won’t sign accords.” Fabio Arias of the CUT said that day that 90 percent of blockades had been lifted. By June 12, many inter-city bus routes began running again from Cali’s terminal.

By June 3, about 23 blockades remained around the country, but the government continued to insist. Committee members responded that not all road blockades were their responsibility. “We can’t order the removal of what we didn’t order to be set up,” said Hami Gómez of the ACREES student organization. At a protest concentration in Cali’s Puerto Resistencia (formerly Puerto Rellena) neighborhood, a protester named “Pipe” told Spain’s EFE news service that the Strike Committee doesn’t speak for them. “They don’t have the legitimacy to tell us to lift the blockades.”

Partly to counter perceptions that the protests are losing momentum, the Strike Committee is calling on protesters to converge on and “take” Bogotá on Wednesday, June 9.

Over the week the government set about implementing a decree, issued late on the evening of May 28, giving the armed forces a greater role in undoing blockades and controlling protests in eight departments [provinces] and thirteen cities, mostly in the country’s southwest. The decree draws on a section of the country’s Police Code allowing authorities to seek “military assistance” at times “when events of serious alteration of security and coexistence so require, or in the face of imminent risk or danger, or to confront an emergency or public calamity.” The measure may triple the combined police and military footprint in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, where the protests have been most intense.

The decree promises that governors and mayors who fail to cooperate with the military “assisters” will suffer “the corresponding sanctions.” It does not specify what those punishments would be. Jairo Libreros of Colombia’s Universidad Externado told El Espectador that there could be no such punishments, because “the military can’t be placed above civilian authorities.”

While the latest bimonthly Invamer poll found 89 percent supporting protests, it also found 61 percent support for militarizing cities when “vandalistic situations” break out.

“It is a partial and de facto internal commotion [state of siege decree], which circumvents constitutional control, involves the military in the management of protest, and subordinates civilian authorities to military commanders, thus configuring a coup d’état,” reads a declaration from the Strike Committee. “Having more security forces on the streets is not a step in the direction of peace,” Sebastian Lanz of Temblores, an NGO that monitors police abuse, told CNN. Former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo, a leading centrist presidential candidate, strongly criticized the decree on Twitter: “this is not a war, nor should we turn it into one.”

Legal challenges to the “military assistance” decree came quickly. In Cundinamarca, the department that surrounds Bogotá, the Administrative Tribunal called President Duque to testify “about the reasons that led him to determine the need for the military forces to provide temporary support to the work being carried out by members of the National Police.” Two opposition legislators, Sen. Iván Cepeda and Rep. David Racero, filed separate injunctions (tutelas) with the State Council demanding that the military assistance decree be suspended on grounds of unconstitutionality. Cepeda contended that the decree is a backdoor “state of siege” (estado de conmoción interior), avoiding the legal requirements that Colombian law entails for such a temporary expansion of military power and restriction of civil liberties. Both argued that the decree omits required legislative oversight, and places military authorities over civilian officials.

Iván Velazquez, a former auxiliary magistrate who led 2000s “para-politics” investigations before going on to head Guatemala’s Commission against Impunity (CICIG), said that he will also file a “public action lawsuit” against the decree. A detailed legal analysis from Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, lays out four key reasons why Duque’s military assistance decree is unconstitutional. Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, contended that Colombian law requires that only police be used to control protests.

The NGO Temblores continues to maintain a thorough database of protest-related violence, with its most recent update on June 2. The Defense Ministry issued its most recent update on June 4. Since protests began on April 28, both sources report:

Temblores (June 2)Defense Ministry (June 4)
Civilians killedUp to 74 (45, plus 29 pending verification)Up to 46 (18, plus 19 “not related to the protests” according to unclear criteria, plus 9 pending verification)
Security forces killed2
Civilians wounded1,2481,106
Security forces wounded1,253
Civilians missing or disappeared327 (as of May 27, according to Coordinación Colombia-Europa-EEUU)114 (111 being searched for, 3 denunciations of forced disappearance)
Arrests and detentions1,6491,389
Cases of eye damage65
Discharges of lethal firearms180
Victims of sexual violence25
Victims of gender-based violence69 (including 1 police agent)
Aggression against journalists210 (as of June 3, according to the FLIP Press Freedom Foundation)
Attacks on the medical mission256 (as of June 2, according to the Health Ministry)

Last week saw fewer killings than the previous week, which was crowned by the bloodiest single day of protests, May 28, when 13 people were killed in Cali. Last week:

  • In Cali, it appears that gunmen killed three people the evening of May 31. On the NGO Indepaz’s list of 75 people believed killed as of June 4, nobody has been killed outside Valle del Cauca, the department of which Cali is the capital, since May 17. Since then, between 26 and 35 people have been killed in Valle del Cauca.
  • Indepaz’s list does not include Yorandy Rosero, a 22-year-old student killed during a protest at an oil installation, convened by indigenous groups in Villagarzón, Putumayo, in the country’s far south. A short drive from Putumayo’s capital, Mocoa, Villagarzón’s commercial airport shares its runway with a Counternarcotics Police base that, in the past, was used heavily for U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation flights. The Counternarcotics Police, not a crowd control force, were called on May 31 to control a demonstration at a well operated by a Canadian corporation, Gran Tierra Energy. Putumayo’s governor says that the protests were violent. Local police leadership insists that while protesters wounded some soldiers and police, the shots that killed Rosero did not come from police personnel. The victims’ mother, however, told Blu Radio, “there are witnesses of those who were with my son at the time he was shot, who say [the police] were very clearly shooting right in front of them.” The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is investigating; this case should be of interest to the U.S. government since, unlike the ESMAD, the Police Counternarcotics Directorate is a unit that does receive U.S. assistance.
  • In another rural territory with several armed groups and much coca cultivation, northeastern Colombia’s Catatumbo region, protests have been ongoing since April 28 but have been peaceful, El Espectador reports. There, one of the protesters’ main demands is that the government fulfill peace accord commitments to rural and coca-growing communities.
  • In Facatativá, a small city just beyond Bogotá’s outskirts in Cundinamarca, rioters vandalized and burned the courthouse on May 29, in an event that recalled the May 25 arson that burned the courthouse of Tuluá, Valle del Cauca to the ground.
  • A freelance reporter was stabbed, he says by a policeman, near the “Portal Resistencia” (or Portal Américas) mass transit terminal in southern Bogotá’s working-class Usme district.
  • Three women participating in protests in Barranquilla, aged 18 through 22, say they were taken to a police station on the night of May 21 and thrown into a jail cell with men whom the police encouraged to sexually abuse them. El Espectador reports: “As they told the Fiscalía, ‘the patrolman who received us entered the cells and began encouraging the prisoners, saying that fresh meat had arrived.’ Next, the complaint states that the same uniformed officer began to shout: ‘they are here to be raped, these are the rock throwers.’” They say they were beaten, stripped, and forced to pay the prisoners in order to avoid being raped. Barranquilla’s deputy police commander, Col. Carlos Julio Cabrera, told the El Heraldo newspaper that what happened was “confused” and is under investigation. The Colonel cast doubt on their story: “According to the officer, the young women did not show any aggression when they left the police station: ‘they came out without any incident and signed a book that we have.’”

UN bodies released two statements voicing alarm at protest-related violence. “These events are all the more concerning given the progress that had been made to resolve, through dialogue, the social unrest that erupted a month ago, following the start of a nation-wide strike against several social and economic policies of the Government,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a May 30 statement noting that “since 28 May, fourteen people have died, and 98 people have been injured, 54 of them by firearms.” The chief of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, who is co-mediating talks between the government and the Strike Committee, said “the serious events in Cali and other cities and departments demonstrate the need to strengthen dialogue as a fundamental instrument for resolving conflicts.”

The ESMAD anti-riot police continued to receive significant scrutiny. Indepaz lists the unit’s members as those most likely responsible for at least 18 killings, especially in late April and the first half of May.

A Razón Pública column by three scholars from Colombia’s National University questions why the unit is not being used as a last resort, why it often uses weapons indiscriminately and disproportionately, why it often chases protesters through city streets after already dispersing them, and why it often uses force without prior warning. Andrés Felipe Ortega, Farid Camilo Rondón, and Lina Paola Faciolince note that “The Esmad and the National Police showed a marked sentiment or prejudice against those who demonstrate publicly. This happens because of the belief that the demonstrators are vandals, because of the alleged infiltration of organized armed groups, which has not yet been proven in all cases, and because of the institution’s own ideas.”

The investigative website Cuestión Pública looked at 30 contracts for purchase of non-lethal crowd control materials since 2017, totaling about 22.5 billion Colombian pesos (US$6.1 million). Among its findings:

  • “Through these [contracting] processes, elements for crowd control, armored tanks, electric and gas cartridges for Venom [vehicle-mounted launchers], stun grenades, gas launchers, fragmentable sphere launchers, pepper spheres, rubber projectiles, propellant and gas cartridges, and paintball markers and spheres were acquired. A batch of 222 12-gauge shotguns was also purchased in 2017.”
  • “This entire battery of weapons was supplied by six companies. Two Colombian: Imdicol Ltda and 7 M Group; three American: Everytrade International Company (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS), Safariland LLC (authorized in Colombia by Nicholls Tactica SAS), and Combined Systems Inc (also authorized in Colombia by Imdicol Ltda); and the Italian, Benelli Armi SpA (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS).”

In recent weeks, though, most protester killings have been the work of people not in uniform. “We have registered 11 cases of violent interventions by civilians in the presence of the public forces,” reads the latest Temblores report. “This trend was seen again last Friday [May 28] in the city of Cali, evidencing the presence of armed agents, who omitted their duties and incurred in criminal acts by endorsing the illegal carrying of weapons and attacks against demonstrators.” That day, numerous citizen and security-camera videos showed men in plainclothes wielding, and at times firing, weapons while nearby police failed to act.

“The video shows at least ten policemen who do nothing,” reads a strong El Espectador editorial. “We have already seen this image on other occasions during this national strike. The echoes it brings from the past are not encouraging. Armies of death were born from such logic in this country.”

“In that place and at that very moment there were several law enforcement officers, who omitted their duty to prevent these events from happening and to capture these people,” recognized Gen. Fernando Murillo, the director of the National Police’s Criminal Investigations and Interpol Directorate (DIJIN). He announced that “a specialized team was appointed to carry out the investigation to identify, individualize, and prosecute these individuals and law enforcement officers, who will have to answer to the competent authorities.”

A gunman who appeared in May 28 videos confronting protesters alongside police in Cali’s wealthy Ciudad Jardín neighborhood went public trying to explain himself. Andrés Escobar, who identified himself as a businessman, posted a video on social media insisting that the gun he was shooting into the air can fire only non-lethal munitions like rubber bullets (arma de fogueo). Such weapons are easy to obtain in Colombia, even at shopping malls, El Espectador reported, though gaining a permit for more lethal firearms is difficult. Escobar added that he had no intention of killing anybody, and that he was angered by “vandals” in his neighborhood.

Escobar appeared to have no explanation for the inaction of nearby police. Further clues about the relationship between Cali police and plainclothes gunmen emerged from the case of Álvaro Herrera, a 25-year-old French horn player whose May 28 treatment in police custody swept through Colombian social media. Herrera was playing his horn as part of a “symphony” accompanying protests in southern Cali. When armed, un-uniformed men arrived and attacked the protesters, some of them roughed up Herrera and took him away—to a nearby police station. There, police beat the musician until he admitted he was a “vandal,” in a video that went viral.

Civilians have also been aggressively following former FARC combatants in Cali, like Natali González, who had served as the Cali municipal government’s deputy secretary for human rights and peacebuilding. Since protests began, unknown men in pickup trucks and motorcycles have been following González around the city; none has yet made contact with her. At least six other ex-guerrillas say the same thing is happening to them, reports El Espectador.

Another increasingly alarming phenomenon is forced disappearances or missing persons in the context of the protests. According to a June 4 La Silla Vacía overview, government data as of May 30 pointed to 111 people reported as missing, after deleting the names of others who were found, often in police custody. NGO counts are significantly higher: on May 26, Indepaz counted 287 people missing, and on May 27 the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (CCEEU) reported 327.

Adriana Arboleda of the Medellín-based Corporación Jurídica Libertad told La Silla that “The Fiscalía isn’t activating urgent search mechanisms, on the grounds that there is insufficient information.” Because it lacks information about many denounced cases of missing people, the prosecutor’s office is not acting quickly. “It is giving a different treatment than what the nature of the urgent search mechanism requires. Which is: with the information you have, you run as fast as you can and try find the person,” said Luz Marina Monzón, the director of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord.

Some of the missing may still be in government custody. An El Tiempo report contends that many people detained at protests have been held at least briefly in “unofficial” sites, with no record of where they are.

President Duque and other top officials insist that police abuses have not been systematic, and promise “zero tolerance” with agents who commit them. In public comments, Duque said that Colombian justice moved more quickly against those responsible for the September 2020 killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez than did U.S. authorities against the killers of George Floyd in May 2020.

In an interview with Spain’s El País, Duque reiterated his government’s allegation, for which almost no proof has yet been produced, that the violence accompanying protests has been “low-intensity terrorism” often carried out by “organized armed groups linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents.” He added that he opposed moving the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, where it has been since 1953, because placing the agency in another cabinet agency, like Interior, would lead to its “politicization.”

Because the police are in the Defense Ministry, crimes committed by police agents go first to the military justice system. On May 31, Reuters reported, National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas said “that information concerning officers who may have broken the law or not performed their duties has been sent to the military justice unit.” The military justice system, however, is meant to try acts of service, and has a poor record of convicting personnel accused of human rights crimes.

As an El Tiempo analysis points out, Colombian jurisprudence has determined that an agent’s alleged crime is not an “act of service” if “there is no ‘proximate and direct’ link between the offense and the service; if the offense is of such gravity that the link to the service is broken; and if there is doubt about any of these elements.” In such cases, the case must go to the civilian justice system, where the Fiscalía would prosecute it.

This distinction is pretty clear in cases like sexual abuse or torture in custody. Things get murkier in cases of improper use of force, when a police agent can argue that efforts to control disturbances were “acts of service.” On that basis, one of Colombia’s highest-profile cases, the November 2019 killing of 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz in downtown Bogotá with a shotgun-fired “beanbag” weapon, remains in the military justice system. On June 3, a military judge ordered the release of two detained police, a lieutenant and a major, who are under investigation for the May 1 shooting death of 17-year-old protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Fiscalía asked on May 11 for this case to be moved to civilian jurisdiction.

This week Colombia’s civilian chief prosecutor (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, sent a request to Defense Minister Diego Molano asking for detailed information about protest-related cases that have been sent to the military justice system. It asks for “the immediate referral of proceedings initiated by the military justice system for possible homicides, intentional personal injury, and sexual offenses.” Barbosa also asks that the military justice system hand over all documents related to armed civilians’ actions in protests alongside police.

Civilian courts issued a few noteworthy protest-related rulings over the past week. A court in Popayán, Cauca banned use in the city of the Venom, a vehicle-mounted apparatus for launching tear gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, and other “non-lethal” munitions, until the National Police develops protocols and trainings for its safe use. A judge ruling on a tutela in Pasto, Nariño ordered they city’s police, especially its ESMAD, to register the names of commanders and the weapons to be deployed, in advance of any crowd control operation. The Administrative Tribunal in Santander is studying whether to suspend the use of stun grenades and 12-gauge shotguns in crowd-control operations.

Inter-American Human Rights Commission will visit imminently

Following a back-and-forth during Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez’s May 24-28 visit to Washington (discussed in last week’s update), the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), will pay a field visit to Colombia on June 8-10. “During the visit, the CIDH will meet with various representative sectors of Colombia, including authorities from different levels of government, representatives of civil society, collectives, unions, and business-sector organizations,” reads a tweet from the Commission. “In particular,” the thread continues, “the CIDH will seek to listen to victims of human rights violations and their families to receive their testimonies, complaints, and communications; as well as to people who were affected by actions of violence in that context.”

On May 29, the CIDH tweeted some cautionary words about the Colombian government’s “military assistance” decree. “The CIDH reiterates the international obligations of the State in internal security, and the Inter-American standards that provide that the participation of the armed forces in security tasks must be extraordinary, subordinate, complementary, regulated, and supervised.”

On June 7, representatives of Colombia’s Fiscalía, Inspector-General (Procuraduría), and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) are to hold three separate “pre-meetings” with the CIDH to “present in-depth reports that fully respond to the requests for information that the Commission issued to each of them,” as expressed in a letter from Ramírez to CIDH secretary María Claudia Pulido.

Vice-President Ramírez proposed that the commissioners visit Cali, Popayán, Cauca; and the city of Tuluá, about 60 miles north of Cali, where protesters burned the courthouse to the ground on May 25. El Espectador noted that her letter made no mention of excesses committed by police or crimes involving armed civilians.

On June 3 the CIDH received a visit in Washington from a group of legislators from the most right-leaning segment of the already right-leaning governing party, the Centro Democrático. Senators and Representatives María Fernanda Cabal, Margarita Restrepo, Juan Manuel Daza, and José Jaime Uscátegui presented the commissioners with a dossier of acts of violence against members of the security forces allegedly committed by protesters. Among the allegations, El Espectador reports, is that the ex-FARC dissident faction headed by former guerrilla negotiator Iván Márquez provided about US$160,000 to maintain disturbances around the country.

Just weeks earlier, Sen. Cabal had a testy radio exchange with the Commission’s president, Antonia Urrejola, who corrected the Senator when she said there was no international right to peaceful protest, and accused the Commission of bias. The group also met with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, and its ambassador to the OAS, Alejandro Ordóñez.

FARC dissidents release some Venezuelan military captives

On May 30, Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, which often reports rumors about security developments along the Colombia-Venezuela border, said that a temporary cessation of hostilities had been reached between the Venezuelan military and the “10th Front” ex-FARC dissidents, who had been fighting inside Venezuela’s border state of Apure since March 21.

The next day, Venezuela recovered eight soldiers who had been held captive by the 10th Front since April 23rd. They appeared to be in good health. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino said that the troops “were rescued” in an operation called “Centenary Eagle.” Tarazona of Fundaredes said that they were freed in an arrangement that involved assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On May 11 the ICRC had confirmed receiving a communication from the 10th Front that it was holding the eight soldiers and was looking for a way to hand them over.

“We continue to search for two more soldiers,” read Gen. Padrino’s communiqué. Tarazona said that three soldiers are missing, and that another 20 have been killed in combat with the Colombian ex-guerrilla dissidents in Apure.

We’ve covered this combat in several previous weekly updates, and Kristen Martínez-Gugerli of WOLA’s Venezuela Program published a helpful FAQ this week. The fighting displaced more than 6,000 Venezuelans into Colombia; questions remain why Venezuelan forces are focusing efforts on the 10th Front, even as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group are also active and present in Apure.

Colombia meanwhile had planned to reopen its official border crossings with Venezuela on June 1, for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in March 20. That plan was abruptly halted on May 31, when the Foreign Ministry postponed the opening until September 1. On June 2, though, Colombia appeared to partially reverse itself again, announcing a gradual opening at crossings as biosecurity measures and other capacity get put into place.

Links

  • “Officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest,” reads a June 1 statement from WOLA.
  • President Duque’s “total incapacity to read the historic moment,” former high commissioner for peace Sergio Jaramillo told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, “is pushing us back to ‘conflict’ mode.”
  • “What is the Centaur state?” writes Julian Gomez Delgado in an interesting essay about Colombia’s political moment at Public Seminar. “It serves the interests of the upper classes, disciplines and regulates the lower classes, and is fearful of popular majorities. The parallel to a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a horse captures the dissonance of its approach to politics: a liberal state at the top cares for the upper classes, and a ‘punitive paternalism’ at the bottom fearsomely contains the popular majority. …Paradoxically at once democratic and authoritarian, instead of resolving social conflicts, the Centaur state reproduces them.”
  • “A significant proportion of protesters in Colombia’s southwest are Indigenous or Black—making the military police’s racial violence against them into a key issue,” write scholars Arturo Chang and Catalina Rodriguez at the Washington Post.
  • Colombian soldiers and police on May 27 killed Robinson Gil Tapias alias “Flechas,” the most recent leader of the Caparros, an organized crime group with great influence in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department. Forces killed Gil in that region, in the municipality of Cáceres, Antioquia. Bajo Cauca, a territory of coca fields, illicit mining, and trafficking corridors, is contested between the Caparros, the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary network, and smaller presences of the ELN and ex-FARC dissident groups. Defense Minister Diego Molano and National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas announced that this blow dismantled the Caparros, a group that can trace its lineage back to the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network. However, a faction of the group, under the command of alias “Franco,” still remains active in the Bajo Cauca region, El Tiempo reported. The Caparros’ largest rival in the Bajo Cauca, the Gulf Clan, also remains active. “This criminal group is the second most powerful in Antioquia and responsible for homicides against social leaders,” human rights defender Óscar Yesid Zapata told El Espectador. “What the structures do is mutate into other substructures and the only thing that is achieved is a change of command.”
  • The Colombian government approved the extradition to the United States, to face narcotrafficking charges, of Alexander Montoya Úsuga, the cousin of the Gulf Clan’s maximum leader Dairo Úsuga. Montoya, alias “El Flaco,” had been arrested in Honduras as part of an operation that involved U.S. and Colombian personnel.
  • A four-person commission from the Colombian government’s Land Restitution Unit went missing in Mesetas, Meta, on May 27. As of June 2, they remained missing. Mesetas, one of five municipalities from which the Colombian security forces pulled out during a failed 1998-2002 peace process with the FARC, today has a significant presence of ex-FARC dissidents.
  • The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, is studying a request from a FARC victims’ group to have the top ex-guerrilla leadership deprived of liberty and suspended from their ten congressional seats. Seven top FARC leaders recently accepted the JEP’s formal accusation of responsibility for over 20,000 kidnappings committed during the conflict. The JEP has sought opinions about the possible suspensions from 18 academic departments and think tanks.
  • Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, acknowledged in a radio interview that governing-party politicians “did do damage” when they acted to support Republican candidates in the 2020 U.S. congressional and presidential elections, that “they did create an important problem.” Santos insisted that the Duque government’s relationships with key U.S. Democrats have recovered.
  • Opposition legislators failed to get the majority vote necessary to remove Defense Minister Molano via a censure motion. As noted in last week’s update, several members of both houses of Colombia’s Congress sought Molano’s censure based on security forces’ excessive use of force against protesters. The motion failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 109 to 36. The previous week, the Senate defeated it by 69 to 31.

Weekly border update: June 4, 2021

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

(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 18.)

Preparations for vice-presidential visit to Mexico and Central America

Vice President Kamala Harris departs for Guatemala late on June 6 for her first foreign trip since taking office. She will spend June 7 in Guatemala and June 8 in Mexico. The trip is part of her designated role as the White House’s point person for partnering with Mexico and Central America on the “root causes” of migration.

Harris and her staff have resisted Republican and some media portrayals of her role as involving the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. It does not: the vice president is focusing on diplomatic efforts with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. At a June 1 briefing for reporters, vice presidential staff said “she will focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people,” CNN reported.

In past months, Harris has held virtual meetings with Presidents Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. She has met with experts, former officials, and reform advocates from the region and from the United States. The Biden administration has announced $310 million in emergency assistance for the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries. The foreign aid appropriation request that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent to Congress on May 28 asks for $832.6 million in new assistance to Central America for 2022. On May 27 Harris announced that 12 U.S. companies and organizations, including MasterCard, Microsoft, and Nestlé Nespresso, would be increasing their investments in the region.


2022 Foreign Aid Request by Country

  • Belize $250,000
  • Costa Rica $725,000
  • El Salvador $95,800,000
  • Guatemala $127,450,000
  • Honduras $95,800,000
  • Nicaragua $15,000,000
  • Panama $725,000
  • Central America regional funds $496,850,000

Total $832,600,000

2022 Foreign Aid Request by Account

  • USAID Global Health Programs $13,000,000
  • State Department Global Health Programs $43,600,000
  • Development Assistance $391,735,000
  • Economic Support Fund $131,000,000
  • International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement $219,665,000
  • NADR – Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction $2,000,000
  • International Military Education and Training $4,100,000
  • Foreign Military Financing $27,500,000

Total $832,600,000

This request would increase Foreign Military Financing (FMF), the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, by a surprising $15.1 million over 2020 levels. That year, the seven Central American countries got a combined $12.4 million, of which only $1.9 million went to the Northern Triangle (El Salvador). In 2021, Congress banned FMF for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras completely. (See Section 7045(a)(2)(D) of Division K here).

We are working to find out which countries would get the expanded FMF in 2022, and for what. The budget request only says: “In Central America, FMF will support the Administration’s Root Causes Strategy by addressing gaps in maritime interdiction and domain awareness capabilities to improve security.”


In her meeting with the president of Guatemala, CBS News reports, Harris “is expected to focus on the administration’s concerns with deep-rooted government corruption, threats to the country’s judicial independence and long-running U.S.-Guatemalan missions to target drug traffickers and the Guatemalan government’s desire for more economic aid, especially in the form of private sector investment.” Harris will also meet “Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs,” Mazin Alfaqih, the vice president’s special adviser for the Northern Triangle, told reporters.

Concerns about corruption and impunity in Guatemala are growing, as explained in a June 2 statement from the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Center for Justice and International Law. “In Guatemala, the rule of law has continued to deteriorate rapidly since the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala was shut down in 2019,” it reads. Recent alarming examples include a refusal to allow anti-corruption judge Gloria Porras to take her Constitutional Court seat, legal actions against prosecutors and judges who have led past anti-corruption efforts, and the impending enactment of a law that would allow the government to dissolve non-governmental organizations.

The leaders will also discuss measures to reduce asylum-seeking migration from Guatemala, whose citizens were “encountered” by U.S. border agents 128,441 times between October and April. The agenda with Guatemala includes increasing “the number of border security personnel,” CNN reports. “The US will also increase the number of its own security forces on the ground to provide training, Alfaqih said.” The White House is also working with Guatemala on the opening of the first of what will be several “migrant resource centers… that would offer assistance to would-be migrants in their home countries.”

In Mexico, beyond her meeting with López Obrador, Vice President Harris will meet with female entrepreneurs and labor leaders, said Hillary Quam, Harris’s special adviser for the Western Hemisphere. The statement from WOLA and colleagues points out serious concerns about “security, the rule of law, judicial independence, human rights violations, and the role of the military” in Mexico. President López Obrador has given the armed forces a host of new internal roles without making the institution more accountable for human rights abuses or corruption. He “has also repeatedly sought to discredit civil society organizations and journalists that he perceives as critical of his government,” including recent demands that USAID stop funding press freedom and transparency organizations in Mexico.

That Harris is visiting Guatemala but not El Salvador and Honduras points to the fraught state of the Biden administration’s relations with the Central American countries whose citizens migrate most to the United States. In all three, the Biden administration plans to provide little government-to-government assistance in its proposed 2022-2025 $4 billion aid package, for which the $832 million request for 2022 is a first tranche.

Giammattei, CBS News observes, “is seen as leading a more stable government than Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, whose brother was indicted in the U.S. for drug possession last year and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, whose party now has total control of the country’s government and has moved in recent weeks to strip the nation’s judicial sector of many of its rights.” The vice president has not had conversations with Hernández or Bukele; “her staff is finding the best way to engage,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ Tracey Wilkinson.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Costa Rica on June 1 and 2 engaging with some of those other governments. At a meeting with the region’s foreign ministers and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Blinken planned to have “a very frank and honest” exchange of views, Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told Wilkinson. Blinken had separate one-on-one meetings with Ebrard and with the ministers of each Northern Triangle country.

In remarks while in Costa Rica, Blinken warned would-be migrants against taking “a very dangerous journey north,” adding, “People die along the way. They experience violence, and those who do make it to our border are turned around, because the border is not open.”

Some analysts worry that administration officials’ desire to stem migration in the short term could move them in a transactional direction, easing pressure on issues like corruption and democracy when leaders do more to stop migrants. In Honduras, where serious allegations beset President Juan Orlando Hernández, “the Biden administration refuses to denounce him,” writes journalist James Fredrick in a June 3 Washington Post opinion piece. “In fact, Biden administration officials are working with Hernández to try to prevent Hondurans from fleeing.”

The June 2 statement from WOLA and partner organizations voices concern “that in the name of reaching immigration enforcement agreements to limit the number of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration will overlook pressing human rights, rule of law, and governance issues that should be addressed with the governments of Mexico and Guatemala.”

While Mexico and Guatemala have embraced immigration enforcement, partly as a result of U.S. pressure, this neither represents an effective and holistic response to migration, nor should it be a pretext to avoid conversations about corruption, insecurity, judicial independence, and attacks against civil society organizations, journalists and justice officials.

In the midst of these concerning human rights trends, Biden administration officials have praised the Mexican and Guatemalan governments for militarized crackdowns on migrants—actions that provoke further human rights violations. In the April meeting between Guatemalan President Giammattei and Vice President Harris, the governments announced an agreement for the United States to train members of a Guatemalan task force charged with border security and immigration enforcement. Media reports leading up to Harris’s May meeting with López Obrador revealed that U.S. officials are discussing proposals for additional enforcement actions, including asking Mexico to increase detentions and deportations of migrants.

A June 4 letter to Vice President Harris from 17 organizations, including WOLA, similarly calls to ensure “that combating corruption, advancing the rule of law, and promoting respect for human rights will be central to the U.S. approach” toward the region. “At the same time,” it continues, “we are concerned by the continued focus on expanding migration enforcement in the region instead of increasing access to protection for refugees.”

Vice presidential spokespeople would not say whether conversations would cover another area where Mexico has been accommodating: the continued use of the “Title 42” pandemic authority at the border. The United States has employed Title 42 since March 2020 to expel over 200,000 non-Mexican migrants back across the border into Mexico.

Other recent moves have been less transactional. Vice President Harris met recently with four former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges who led anti-corruption efforts. USAID suspended assistance to Salvadoran security and justice institutions whose independence is now deeply in question after President Bukele and his congressional majority fired top judges and the chief prosecutor and redirected the aid to civil society and human rights organizations. In Costa Rica, Blinken said that “we’re meeting at a moment when democracy and human rights are being undermined in many parts of the region,” citing moves against judicial independence, the free press, NGOs, and opposition parties.

“Remain in Mexico” comes to a formal end as administration plans changes to asylum

With a June 1 memorandum, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas brought a formal end to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy (MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico”). In 2019 and 2020, MPP forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court hearing dates in the United States, which for many families meant months or years stranded in dangerous Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults committed against those whom the Trump administration forced to “Remain in Mexico.”

On January 20, the new Biden administration paused new referrals into MPP. On February 2, a White House executive order called on agencies to review the program and decide whether to terminate it. Mayorkas’s June 1 memo finalizing the end of “Remain in Mexico” signals the end of that review.

Starting on February 19, the administration started letting into the United States asylum-seekers who had been in Mexico awaiting their court dates. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 1 that 11,200 people with active cases have since been brought onto U.S. soil to await their hearings with relatives or other contacts.

Many more—probably about 15,000—still have pending cases. They are either waiting their turn to be allowed into the United States, in a process managed in cooperation with Mexican authorities, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and NGOs, or their whereabouts are unknown. In addition, tens of thousands more had their asylum cases terminated, usually because they failed to show up on their appointed hearing dates. In at least a few cases, migrants missed those dates because they were actually being held by kidnappers in Mexico. The Biden administration has not decided whether a process will be in place to reconsider their cases.

Meanwhile the Biden administration, with a slowly growing number of exceptions, continues to maintain the “Title 42” pandemic policy. As discussed above, Title 42 has sent well over 200,000 Central American migrants back across the border into Mexico, without a chance to ask for asylum, since March 2020. Administration officials continue to offer no timeline for the policy’s lifting, even as new COVID-19 cases ebb and restrictions ease across the United States.

The result has been a confusing “lottery,” as NBC News puts it, for migrant families. In April, 35 percent of non-Mexican families (16,100 out of 46,499) whom Border Patrol apprehended were expelled under Title 42. The rest, however, got to stay in the United States to pursue their petitions for protection. In the same part of the border at different times, a family with small children can be expelled and a single adult can be allowed in.

The main reason for the inconsistency, Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Brian Hastings told NBC, “is that some enter on days when Mexico cannot take them back…  ‘When they run out of shelter space a lot of times they were telling different Border Patrol sectors, ‘No, we can no longer take any additional people because we don’t have additional housing or we don’t have additional space in a lot of our facilities.’’”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed revealed that the Biden administration is planning a significant change to the U.S. asylum system designed to ease immigration courts’ backlog of more than 1.3 million cases for just over 500 judges. It would allow asylum officers—employees of DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—to decide most asylum cases instead of immigration court judges.

Right now, asylum officers have this power in the cases of asylum-seekers who are already in the United States. For those recently apprehended at the border, though, asylum officers’ role is usually limited to performing initial “credible fear” screenings. Those whose cases meet that standard then move on into the clogged court system.

Instead, many asylum cases would end with the asylum officer’s decision, which could be appealed to the courts. This greater role for asylum officers was a key recommendation developed by the Migration Policy Institute in an October 2020 brief. “DHS officials have estimated that officers could end up adjudicating upward of 300,000 cases a year,” BuzzFeed reports.

More single adult migrants may mean more dehydration and exposure deaths on U.S. soil

The Washington Post and NBC News reported new information raising alarms that 2021 could be a record-breaking year for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border zone. Between 1998 and 2019, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 7,805 migrants who perished of dehydration, hypothermia, animal attacks, drowning, or similar causes while seeking to avoid apprehension in very remote areas. Advocates insist the real number is much higher.

Between a pandemic-caused economic depression and because Title 42 expulsions make it easy for expelled migrants to cross again, Border Patrol is encountering more single adult migrants in fiscal 2021 than it has since the mid-2000s. The agency encountered adults 108,301 times in April, and Reuters and the Post say preliminary figures point to a further increase in May. Unlike families and children, who are mostly seeking asylum and want to be apprehended, most of this larger number of single adults instead seeks to avoid apprehension. This means they are walking long distances in sparsely populated areas, usually deserts, where the chances of being detected are smaller.

Numbers are up in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, where for years migrants have perished as they sought to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. Border Patrol Agent Brandon Copp, lead coordinator for CBP’s Missing Migrants Program, told NBC that this spring, even before the weather gets truly hot, he “is already responding to one to two reports of dead bodies found in the Rio Grande Valley sector each week. He said rescues of migrants in distress are up 150 percent year to year, while deaths are up 58 percent.”

Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Don White told the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff, “It’s going to be a brutal summer… I’ve never seen so many people coming through, it’s just crazy right now.” The county has already recovered 34 bodies and remains so far this year.

In southern Arizona, where the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s office found more remains in 2020 (220) than it had in a decade, “2021 looks like it will be pretty significant as well,” Medical Examiner Greg Hess told the Post. Miroff cites authorities who say “dangerous crossings have also increased” in the mountains of California between San Diego and the Imperial Valley.

Border-wide, Border Patrol “is on pace to make more than 10,000 rescues during fiscal 2021, twice the number recorded in 2019 and 2020,” the Post reveals. A CBP Air and Marine Operations official noted that many of these are happening in “mountain regions, which used to be exclusively narcotics traffic.”

Border Patrol is adding 15 rescue beacons in the Rio Grande Valley so that lost or struggling migrants can more easily call for help, NBC reports. Legislation passed in December 2020 authorizes the addition of up to 170 more rescue beacons border-wide.

The Post notes that the Trump administration’s border wall construction, much of it in Arizona and New Mexico deserts, hasn’t kept migrants from crossing in dangerous areas. “Officials say the barriers have made little difference in terms of where they are encountering bodies or human remains.”

Links

  • WOLA held an event May 27 with partners along the Mexico-Guatemala border to discuss the impact of migrant enforcement policies there. We posted video this week. At Border Report, reporter Julian Resendiz noted panelists’ observations about how corruption enables smuggling in Mexico: “buses or trailers carrying migrants often pass right through some checkpoints after paying a $100 per-head fee.”
  • A June 3 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector-General’s Office (OIG) “has not adhered to a number of professional standards for federal OIGs and key practices for effective management.” As a result, oversight of DHS was weakened during the Trump administration, a moment when it was badly needed. During those years, the Department’s leadership was mostly “acting,” and its personnel became involved in controversial missions ranging from family separations to combating protesters in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere.
  • Amid pandemic border closures, drug traffickers have depended more heavily on U.S. citizens to bring their product in from Mexico, the Associated Press reports. “U.S. citizens were apprehended nearly seven times more often than Mexican citizens between October 2020 and March 31 for trying to smuggle drugs in vehicles,” according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data AP cites. This is a big jump over “roughly twice as often” in 2018 and 2019. “The use of American citizens kind of ebbs and flows. Drug organizations… are much more adept at changing than the government is,” former Border Patrol sector chief Victor Manjarrez told AP.
  • The Biden administration announced a new plan to speed asylum decisions for migrants recently apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, by placing them in a separate immigration docket with the goal of handing down a decision within 300 days. However, “immigrant advocacy groups say that prioritizing speed comes at the cost of due process,” Rolling Stone reported. CBS News points out that during past so-called “rocket docket” experiences, the faster timeframe made it harder for asylum seeking families to secure legal representation. The plan will be rolled out at immigration courts in 10 cities.
  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who is running for re-election this year, issued a disaster declaration for 34 border counties, citing an “ongoing surge” of migrants and accusing the Biden administration of inaction. Rep. Henry Cuéllar, a conservative Democrat who represents a large swath of borderland, called Abbott’s move “a state version of [former President Donald Trump] declaring a border emergency.”
  • Part of Abbott’s order would end licenses for 52 Texas childcare facilities contracted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house children who arrived unaccompanied at the border. These facilities were housing 4,223 unaccompanied children as of May 19, the Dallas Morning News reports. (Temporary emergency facilities housing children, like Fort Bliss, Texas, are not licensed and would be unaffected by Abbott’s order.) An HHS spokesperson told the DMN that staff are “assessing” the disaster declaration “and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order.”
  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) announced that he is using procedural mechanisms to slow approvals of the Biden administration’s Homeland Security nominees until the President visits the U.S.-Mexico border. Those whose approvals could be delayed include nominees John Tien for deputy secretary, Jonathan Meyer for general counsel, and Robert Silvers as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans. It is not clear whether nominees to head CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be affected.
  • Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) jointly toured Border Patrol facilities, including migrant shelters and “soft-sided” (tent-based) processing centers for apprehended migrants, in both of their states on June 1 and 2. The senators are co-sponsors of the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act,” discussed in our April 30 update. The legislation would increase processing capacity and access to legal services at the border, but advocates have criticized provisions that would seek to hand down asylum decisions within as little as 72 hours, raising due process concerns.
  • Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Adriano Espaillat (D-New York), and Sylvia García (D-Texas) reintroduced the “Homeland Security Improvement Act” (H.R. 3557), legislation that passed the House in 2019. It seeks to improve internal controls, training, use of force policies, and other aspects of human rights and effectiveness at CBP and elsewhere within DHS.
  • As we await official statistics on migrants apprehended during the month of May, USA Today reports that the number of asylum-seeking family members may be reduced in Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley. The Catholic Charities respite center, which receives nearly all families let out of Border Patrol custody, was receiving about 800 people a day in April, but “as of May, the organization had seen a decrease to 200 to 300 people daily.” In the USA Today article, local Rio Grande Valley officials and volunteers say that the Biden administration has been “slow” and is not coordinating with them enough on migrant reception.
  • Mexican asylum seekers “are the invisible refugees, a group that has historically been excluded from the U.S. asylum system and rarely featured in the media or even academic research,” in part due to “the uncomfortable and inconvenient political truths that recognizing them would pose for U.S.-Mexico relations,” a team of six U.S. and Mexican researchers writes at NACLA.
  • At Florida Public Radio’s WRLN, Tim Padgett reports on a big recent increase in asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the remote crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico and Del Rio, Texas. Many arrived in Mexico by flying there: reporter Dudley Althaus said “they were sort of what we call business-class border migrants. More professionals and fewer laborers than you see among the Central Americans.”

Colombia Peace Update: May 29, 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. This week’s edition is several days late, as other program activities left insufficient time to draft it.

Nationwide protests enter a fifth week

Street protests, concentrations, and road blockades that began on April 28 continued all week around Colombia. As before, protests, vandalism, and security forces’ and third parties’ violent response were most intense in Cali and elsewhere in the country’s southwest.

As of May 28 Temblores, an NGO that tracks human rights abuse by police, had counted:

  • 43 people allegedly killed by the security forces, plus 27 cases under verification.
  • 1,133 “victims of physical violence.”
  • 175 uses of lethal firearms.
  • 22 victims of sexual violence and 6 victims of gender-based violence.

As of May 28 Temblores counted 47 people who had suffered eye injuries from “non-lethal” police projectile weapons, some of them probably misused by improperly aiming at protesters’ faces, a practice that human rights defenders also documented during protests in Chile. In a May 26 virtual session of Colombia’s Senate, Paola Holguín, a member of the governing Centro Democrático party, sparked outrage when she told opposition senators, “Don’t fool Colombians and don’t fool the international community and stop crying out of one eye.”

Among other non-governmental observers reporting violence:

  • As of May 26, Human Rights Watch had counted 63 people probably killed since the protests began, of whom it had been able to confirm 28: 26 civilians and 2 police agents.
  • The New York Times published an analysis of multiple citizen videos that “shows how officers used indiscriminate and, in some cases, lethal force against civilians.”
  • Colombia’s non-governmental Freedom of the Press Foundation (FLIP) counted more than 129 aggressions committed against nearly 150 reporters.

As of May 28, the government’s count included:

  • 45 civilians killed, of whom it categorized 17 of having a direct link to protest activities, 9 being verified, and 19 unlinked to the protests.
  • 2 police killed.
  • 168 disciplinary investigations opened against security-force members.
  • 1,081 civilians and 1,163 members of the security forces wounded. 5 security-force members who remain hospitalized.
  • 141 “impacts” on government infrastructure, plus 111 small urban police posts (CAIs) “affected.” Of the 153 stations of Bogotá’s Transmilenio transit system, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported on May 25, 139 were “affected,” nearly 50 so severely that they are inoperable.
  • 2,768 roadblocks.

The investigative website La Silla Vacía analyzed the violence statistics compiled by three entities: the government; Human Rights Watch; and Temblores in cooperation with another NGO, Indepaz. It found the largest discrepancy among the three in the number of deaths reported as “related to protests.” La Silla’s reporters asked the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) how it determined that 19 deaths were not protest-related. “As of the date of publication of this article, no response had been received either by phone or mail.” The human rights groups, which have not “dismissed” any cases, were “more transparent” than the government about their methodology.

Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, continued to see the most protests and related violence. At key intersections and traffic circles near poor neighborhoods, protesters have established weeks-long concentrations, blocking road traffic, fending off security forces, and adopting a communal or mutual aid ethic. Those on the front lines call themselves the ”Primera Línea.” (A 16-minute Vice video, posted May 28, gives an up-close look at some of these concentrations.)

May 19-23 saw frequent violence around a concentration and nearby supermarket in the eastern neighborhood of Calipso. At least two young people were killed, as was a 22-year-old policeman, one of two police killed in Colombia since protests began. Some of the violence was the work of an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Cali: armed civilians firing on crowds with no interference from nearby police.

On May 24 south of Calipso, in the Puerto Rellena area that protesters have renamed “Puerto Resistencia,” a gunman in a truck killed Armando Álvarez, a medical worker who had been tending to protesters. “Álvarez handled medical attention for injured people and accompanied the victims’ families, which is why he was known as the ‘guardian angel’ of Puerto Resistencia,” Contagio Radio reported.

May 28 was the worst day of violence in Cali, with about 13 deaths reported in several concentrations around the city. Most if not all of the killing was the work of armed men in civilian clothing. Citizen videos, including some from a particularly intrepid freelance photographer who goes by the Twitter and Instagram handle @jahfrann, show these armed men firing weapons alongside police, who don’t respond at all.

In Cali’s La Luna neighborhood on May 28, protesters caught and beat to death a man who had shot several people, killing two. The gunman, Fredy Bermúdez Ortiz, turned out to be an off-duty agent of the Technical Investigations Corps (CTI), the Fiscalía’s judicial police.

Tuluá, a town about 60 miles north of Cali along the Pan-American Highway, saw intense violence on May 25. The previous day, four young people were massacred, in an event possibly unrelated to the protests, and flyers had circulated around the city threatening protesters. Clashes with police began the morning of the 25th, according to Spain’s EFE news service, “when authorities preventively detained a score of people, including some minors, after clearing blockaded roads on the city’s north and south sides, the mayor said.”

The situation escalated into a riot. By the end of the day, 18 businesses in downtown Tuluá were vandalized or looted, and—in images that shocked the country—the town’s courthouse was burned to the ground. An 18-year-old law student was killed, apparently by gunfire. Thousands of judicial case documents, few if any of them digitized, were lost. “Attacks like those of tonight in Tuluá stop being vandalism and become terrorist acts,” said Defense Minister Diego Molano, who added that authorities had arrested in Tuluá a suspected member of the “Dagoberto Ramos” ex-FARC dissident group, which is usually more active south of Cali.

Bogotá continued to see massive, and generally more peaceful, protests, with greatest numbers on May 26, the four-week anniversary of the general strike’s launch. These have been concentrated around the Monument to the Heroes, a park not far from the city’s financial district, and around the Las Américas mass-transit portal in a working-class area in the city’s southwest. Protesters have rechristened Portal Las Américas as “Portal de la Resistencia.”

Visiting Cali on the evening of May 28, following the city’s very violent day, President Iván Duque issued a decree authorizing the military to play a greater role in keeping public order in eight of Colombia’s departments (provinces): seven in the south and west, and one (Norte de Santander) in the northeast. Decree 575 activates “military assistance,” a legal authorization allowing the military’s temporary use for “emergency or public calamity.” The decree requires mayors and governors in the eight departments to cooperate with the deployed soldiers or “be subject to sanctions,” which are unspecified.

“About 7,000 uniformed personnel from all armed forces will be in the streets,” El Tiempo reported. Defense Minister Molano tweeted video of rucksack-bearing troops boarding aircraft as they deployed to Cali (and some to Popayán, the capital of Cauca to the south). “This deployment will almost triple our capacity throughout the province in less than 24 hours, ensuring assistance in nerve centers where we have seen acts of vandalism, violence and low-intensity urban terrorism,” Duque said. He added that the security forces will devote more intelligence resources to prove the government’s thesis that Colombia’s armed groups are behind acts of vandalism. “Islands of anarchy cannot exist in our country,” the President proclaimed.

Human rights advocates, including WOLA, voiced concern about the large deployment of troops, who have been trained and experienced in combat during Colombia’s armed conflict but have little experience in techniques that require a much lighter touch, like crowd control and de-escalation of tense situations.

Citing persistent examples of excessive use of force, opposition members of Congress sought a censure vote against Defense Minister Molano, who since taking office in February has made occasional headlines with aggressive statements. Molano’s resignation is among the many demands of the Strike Committee that organized the initial April 28 protests.

The legislature’s ability to terminate cabinet members via censure votes came about in the 1991 constitution, adjusted by a 2007 law. While the Congress has sought to censure ministers 29 times, no censure effort has ever succeeded in revoking one. The process has served mainly to draw attention to strong critiques of a minister’s performance.

The House of Representatives met for seven hours on May 24. After some strong speeches on both sides, in both chambers, by week’s end it did not appear that opposition legislators had the votes necessary to fire Molano. “Traditional politicians see this in two colors: that to vote for the motion is to vote for the strikes and

[leftist politician and likely 2022 presidential candidate Gustavo]

Petro,” a representative from the center-right Cambio Radical party told La Silla Vacía.

“No one should have been injured, in their personal integrity or life, by this violence,” Molano told the House of Representatives. “While I regret each one of those who have been affected, the responsibility is not of the police, but of those who generate violence.” He added his view that “institutions are under attack” in a coordinated way. “How curious that not only in Cali, but also in Bogota, in Barranquilla, in Cartagena, we have had systematic attacks on institutions. Why the mayors’ offices? Why the governors’ offices? What we see today in Tuluá, where a justice unit has just been incinerated.”

Negotiations continued, haltingly, in Bogotá between the government and the Strike Committee, which is largely made up of labor union leaders though other sectors have representation. Early in the week, media reported that the two sides has reached a “pre-agreement” laying the groundwork for more structured negotiations. The Strike Committee developed a list of short-term demands to discuss in these negotiations, focused mainly on labor rights, basic income and suspension of utility payments, access to education, and women’s rights.

By week’s end, though, negotiations remained as far off as they had been when the week began. Both sides had pre-conditions that remained unmet. The Strike Committee demanded that the government cease using excessive force and “guarantee the right to social protest.” The government demanded that the Committee publicly call for an end to road blockades that have contributed to shortages of basic goods.

“Some members of the Strike Committee have insisted on exclusively promoting the figure of ‘humanitarian corridors’ [exceptions allowing essential goods to pass through roadblocks], without condemning the blockades,” said the government’s chief negotiator following a meeting on May 27. “For the National Government, this point is non-negotiable.”

That government official is Emilio Archila, who as the Presidency’s High Commissioner for Stabilization is also responsible for most peace accord implementation. As the lead government representative in talks with the Strike Committee, Archila replaces High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos who, as discussed below, resigned on May 24.

Government and Strike Committee representatives were to meet again on May 30. The government’s insistence on lifting roadblocks is likely to be at the center of discussions.

Citing the Defense Ministry, Reuters reported on May 26 that 73 roadblocks were active around the country. The term in this case generally does not refer to the urban concentration sites where “Primera Línea” and other “resistance” groups have stopped city traffic: it refers to groups of people using barriers and debris to stop traffic on roads that are usually the only routes between major cities.

Highway roadblocks are leading to shortages of basic goods in urban markets and gas lines in some cities. They have blocked much cargo activity in Buenaventura, Colombia’s principal port. They threaten to affect fuel transfers from the key refinery in Barrancabermeja, Santander.

The roadblocks give protesters important bargaining power with the government. In a communique, the Strike Committee insisted that the “so-called blockades,” or “temporary and intermittent road closures,” are part of “legitimate possibilities” for protest.

Because they cause shortages and economic harm, though, prolonged roadblocks—those less “temporary and intermittent”—carry a large public opinion cost for the protesters. The cost is especially high when roadblocks stop ambulances and other vehicles on urgent medical missions, like oxygen deliveries. An especially strong outcry followed the death of an intubated newborn baby, in the pre-dawn hours of May 22, in a blocked ambulance on the road between Buenaventura and Cali.

Stopping roadblocks was the main demand of perhaps 10,000 white-clad protesters who marched in downtown Cali on May 25 to demand an end to the situation. Hundreds took part in similar marches in the provincial capitals of Neiva, Huila and Popayán, Cauca.

Vice President visits Washington

Colombia’s vice president and newly named foreign minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, paid a week-long visit to the United States—first New York, then Washington—to tell the Colombian government’s side of the story. As a member of the Conservative party—not the more right-populist Centro Democrático party of President Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe—Ramirez presented the government’s case to U.S. audiences in more moderate terms, avoiding some of the fire-breathing rhetoric of Uribe and other CD politicians.

In Washington, where Ramírez held about 20 meetings, those audiences included several members of Congress (Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Robert Menéndez (D-New Jersey), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida); Reps. Albio Sires (D-New Jersey) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts)); members of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH); non-governmental or semi-governmental organizations like WOLA, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Institute for Peace; OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro; and finally, on May 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. La Silla Vacía notes that Ramírez did not secure meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris or Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).

Secretary Blinken “expressed his concern and condolences for the loss of life during recent protests in Colombia and reiterated the unquestionable right of citizens to protest peacefully,” according to a State Department readout. “He welcomed the national dialogue President Duque has convened as an opportunity for the Colombian people to work together to construct a peaceful, prosperous future.” This was likely a reference to the slow-moving talks between the government and the Strike Committee.

The State Department’s public-facing remarks made no mention of concern about the security forces’ recent human rights performance. Following his May 28 meeting, Sen. Murphy raised the issue: “the Colombian authorities’ treatment of protestors—specifically the use of lethal force—is very disturbing. I communicated my concerns directly to Vice President Ramirez this week, and I specifically urged the Colombian government to immediately allow in international human rights bodies so that there can be an independent accounting of the violence that has consumed the country.” On the other end of the spectrum, after meeting with Florida-based Colombian business leaders, Sen. Rubio said he saw “an orchestrated attack against the stability of Colombia’s democratic future.”

At the White House’s May 24 press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether she was prepared to “denounce police brutality in Colombia… from this lectern.” A similar call came in a May 26 letter from three U.S. labor federations (AFL-CIO, SEIU, and Teamsters). Psaki responded obliquely:

Well, I will say we welcome announcements by the Colombian government to investigate allegations of excessive use of force by police. The Colombian government, as you know, has activated a special urgent search unit to investigate reports of missing persons, with 35 search teams deployed nationwide to follow reports received through their 24-hour hotlines.

We encourage the authorities to continue to work to locate all missing persons as quickly as possible, and we certainly encourage those actions.

Numerous human rights advocates had been making calls similar to Sen. Murphy’s: that the Colombian government accept an in situ visit from the CIDH, an autonomous body of the OAS. The CIDH on May 7 communicated to the Duque government its desire to pay such a visit. Being present in Colombia, CIDH President Antonia Urrejola told El Espectador, “would allow direct information to be gathered and a dialogue to be held with all sectors in order to generate recommendations to guide the roadmap for overcoming the crisis.”

On May 24, following a meeting with OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, Ramírez turned down a CIDH visit for the time being, on the grounds that “it is necessary to wait for the government’s investigative agencies themselves to finish their work” and share their information with the Commission. The refusal drew quick criticism amid observations that only governments like those of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela tend to reject CIDH visits.

By May 25, after meeting with Urrejola and other CIDH commissioners, Vice President Ramírez said the Commission was welcome after its June 29 regular public hearings about the situation in Colombia. The CIDH put out a statement “emphasizing the importance of a working visit as soon as possible.”

On May 26 Ramírez said the Commission could visit “any time it wants,” even “tomorrow and we wouldn’t have any problem.” Colombia sent a letter on the evening of May 27 accepting a visit. The letter asks that the Commission’s work cover protesters’ road blockades, including a request that they cease. Another letter, dated May 25, invites Almagro to visit.

On May 27, while the Vice President was in Washington, President Duque spoke at a virtual event hosted by two Washington-based think tanks, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Inter-American Dialogue. Duque said that abuses committed by security forces must be investigated, as well as violent acts committsed by civilians against security forces. He added that the Fiscalía is investigating 17 such cases.

Duque blamed acts of violence and vandalism on the “influence of armed groups that promote this type of behavior to create uncertainty.” Several days earlier, Duque had told Forbes, “The police on an annual basis undertake more than 30 million police procedures. Are there cases of abuse within 30 million police procedures? Yes, there are—there might be.”

Dialogue President Michael Shifter had some unvarnished words for Duque in his initial questioning, La Silla Vacía noted: “The perception in Washington is that your government has not been able to handle the crisis, that there are Colombians who are not happy with your work. We all condemn the vandalism, but the protests seem to have legitimate grievances, some longstanding, some new. There are credible reports of police abuse.”

New high commissioner for peace

Since the first days of the Duque administration Miguel Ceballos, a former Georgetown University professor and vice-minister of Justice, had served as high commissioner for peace. The position, created in the 1990s, leads government efforts to negotiate with armed groups, and usually with other groups making strong demands, like the Strike Committee.

Though President Duque later revealed that Ceballos had declared an intention to leave his post months earlier, the High Commissioner abruptly announced his resignation on May 24. In an interview with El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, Ceballos said he was unhappy that former president Álvaro Uribe, the founder of the governing Centro Democrático party, had made contacts with leaders of the ELN guerrillas without first consulting him. As High Commissioner, Ceballos was the official charged with authorizing such contacts.

Ceballos indicated interest in running for the presidency in 2022; with only modest name recognition and without support of a political party—he left the Conservative party in 2016—such a run would be a longshot.

President Duque quickly named a new high commissioner: Juan Camilo Restrepo, the vice-minister of agriculture for rural development. Restrepo is a controversial choice.

Contagio Radio notes that he headed Colombia’s Association of Banana Producers, some of whose members are suspected of supporting paramilitary groups in the past. During Restrepo’s tenure, the Association published declarations of Raúl Hasbún, a northwest Colombian banana-zone businessman who went to prison for actually being a paramilitary leader. Restrepo later headed a company, AUGURA, that donated 33 million pesos (then about US$11,000) to the campaign to defeat the 2016 peace accord in a plebiscite held in October of that year.

The former FARC political party, Comunes, criticized Restrepo’s nomination in a statement issued May 27. “How is he going to implement the accord if he doesn’t even agree with it or believe in it?” it reads.

The 2022 U.S. aid request

On May 28 the Biden administration sent to Congress its detailed budget request for the 2022 fiscal year. It would provide Colombia with $453,850,000 next year, which is $8,525,000 or 2 percent less than what Congress specified for Colombia in the 2021 foreign aid appropriation.

Of that $453 million, $216 million (in fact, probably $252 million adding likely judicial aid) would go through USAID accounts that pay for economic development and civilian institution-building, including peace accord implementation. $42 million would definitely be military or police aid. $196 million (in fact, probably $160 million subtracting likely judicial aid) would go through State Department accounts that can pay for either military/police or economic aid, like counter-narcotics programs. This latter category includes $21 million for demining programs, an amount that has stayed steady since 2017.

This amount does not include an unspecified amount of additional aid to help Colombia attend to the Venezuelan migrant population.

An additional amount of aid reaches Colombia’s military and police outside this foreign aid budget. It goes through the Defense Department’s budget, which includes its own separate “train and equip” authorities. While we don’t know how much that Defense aid would be for 2021 (and don’t have the 2020 Defense number yet either), between 2016 and 2019 it ranged from $55 million to $96 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The $453.85 million 2022 request for Colombia closely follows the same lines as appropriations passed since the outgoing Obama administration’s 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package became law:

  • $402.4 million in 2017
  • $436.7 million in 2018
  • $422.2 million in 2019
  • $461.1 million in 2020 (plus about $124 million in counter-drug funds that the Trump administration transferred to Colombia after stripping it from Central America aid)
  • $462.4 million in 2021

The only notable adjustment is a proposed $14 million decrease in the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, from $189 million in 2021 to $175 million in 2022. This program supports drug eradication and interdiction operations, as well as assistance to the Fiscalía and other parts of Colombia’s justice system. INCLE is by far the largest source of assistance to Colombia’s National Police, which is currently under a cloud as evidence of protest-related abuses continues to mount.

Links

  • WOLA and four other groups hosted a May 28 event, with archived video, about police violence in the context of protests.
  • Two articles in Colombian media outlets by WOLA’s Adam Isacson look at the protests’ meaning and the potential U.S. role. “People are no longer afraid to express what they feel,” reads an interview with El Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco. At Razón Pública, a column discusses how the National Strike is being viewed from Washington.
  • Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which the 2016 peace accord gives a role in verifying both sides’ compliance with commitments, issued on May 25 its fifth report on accord implementation. “A significant difference exists between the current peacebuilding funds and what is needed to meet the goals established in the Framework Plan for Implementation,” it finds.
  • The Defensoría counted 34 murders of social leaders during the first three months of 2021. This would be a significant drop from 54 it counted during the first quarter of 2020. (The NGO Indepaz, which often has the highest of all major estimates, had counted 42 social-leader killings as of March 31.)
  • Several U.S. and Colombian human rights organizations met on May 28 with officials from the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to discuss concerns.
  • Four men armed with assault rifles entered a former FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in rural Tumaco, Nariño, on May 24. They threatened a demobilized guerrilla at his home, then departed.
  • Pilar Rueda, who coordinates the gender team at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s (JEP) Investigations and Accusations Unit, told El Espectador she is “sure” that the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal will do more to take up the many cases of sexual violence committed during the armed conflict with the FARC.
  • At La Silla Vacía, Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz looks at violence data for the first four months of 2021 and finds a troubling increase in homicides and other measures. “While the pandemic may be part of the explanation, the state’s security strategy, along with the fragmentation of illegal armed groups, plays a central role. Above all, because the increases recorded, specifically in conflict zones, surpassed the records of the pre-pandemic years to levels we had not seen in the past decade.”
  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned Colombia’s ambassador to Moscow to explain comments by Defense Minister Molano, who had said Russian “cyberattacks” were helping to drive the country’s ongoing protests.
  • A proof-of-life video was sent to the mother of Army Colonel Pedro Enrique Pérez, who disappeared while off duty on April 18, after visiting a hotel with a woman in Saravena, Arauca, a municipality on the Venezuelan border with a large presence of armed groups. Col. Pérez is believed to be in Venezuelan territory, a captive of the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group, which operates on both sides of the border.
  • As of May 28, eight Venezuelan soldiers remained captive of the 10th Front dissidents in Apure, across the border from Arauca. Fighting between Venezuela’s security forces and the 10th Front has been frequent since March 21. In a new proof of life video, some of the soldiers appeal to the Maduro regime for help arranging their release.
  • On May 27 the Fiscalía arrested and charged 11 people in Arauca with conspiracy to support the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group. The 10th Front is the same group that has been fighting Venezuelan government forces across the border from Arauca, in Apure. Among the arrested is an official from the Arauca city mayor’s office and several members of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca (ACA), a large and politically active local campesino organization. At least one ACA member was arrested at 4:00 AM and taken away in a truck without license plates.
  • Between 2:00 and 4:00 AM on May 24, police operating on Fiscalía orders carried out nine raids on residences in Cali and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, arresting seven people whom they accused of being part of the support network of the “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group. El Espectador noted with alarm that three of those arrested are directors of a well-regarded cooperative set up after the peace accord to help former combatants earn a living.
  • “The Duque government is on its way out and has neither the will nor the legitimacy to address the underlying issues behind the National Strike,” writes Andrei Gómez Suárez of Rodeemos el Diálogo. Therefore, “it is necessary to prepare the conditions for a national dialogue when the next government arrives with sufficient determination to make the necessary structural transformations.”
  • “It is easy to deduce that it is the government itself that has contributed to the prolonged and increasingly massive strike,” writes Sandra Borda of the Universidad de los Andes.
  • “In the last month, 14,782 Colombians have died from Covid, and 84,724 since the pandemic began, almost double the number of all combatants killed during the entire armed conflict in Colombia measured since 1958,” reports La Silla Vacía, in coverage of the latest bimonthly Invamer poll, which in fact shows the pandemic low on the list of Colombians’ main concerns.
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