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 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.

From WOLA: Violence in Colombia Requires Bold Response from Biden Administration

We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.

officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.

This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.

To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.

Read the whole thing at wola.org.

Weekly Border Update: May 28, 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.

Reports, media coverage describe humanitarian emergency at  the border as a result of Title 42

In a column at the Los Angeles Times, three medical providers from the Refugee Health Alliance discussed what they’ve seen at the tent encampment that has sprung up around the Chaparral port of entry, on the Mexican side of the main pedestrian border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. There, about 2,000 asylum seekers from several countries are waiting for a chance to present to U.S. officials and ask for protection in the United States.

Some are recent arrivals; many are people, including families, whom U.S. border authorities apprehended, then rapidly expelled without a chance to ask for protection. Since March 2020, the expulsions have taken place under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that the Trump administration began and the Biden administration has continued.

“We’ve seen how this expulsion policy has caused a humanitarian emergency in northern Mexico,” write Psyche Calderon, Hannah Janeway, and Ronica Mukerjee. “We have seen increasing dehydration, malnutrition and infectious diseases associated with overcrowding. At an encampment in Tijuana that shelters some 2,000 asylum seekers, there are no formal sanitation facilities; gastrointestinal illnesses are causing severe illness in newborns and young children.”

The op-ed highlights other recent striking statistics from the border, including research that found “More than 80% of LGBTQ refugees in Baja California [the state of which Tijuana is the capital] reported surviving an assault in Mexico from mid-February to March.” 

In another recent report, Julia Neusner of Human Rights First interviewed more than 110 asylum seekers waiting in Tijuana, both at the encampment and elsewhere in the city. She found that many are threatened: “The U.S. government is delivering those expelled under Title 42 straight into the hands of criminal organizations, who extort their family members in the United States for ransom. Nearly a quarter of the fifty families I interviewed who had been expelled under Title 42 had been kidnapped in Mexico.” The report notes that Human Rights First has documented  “more than 492 public reports of assaults, rapes, kidnappings, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers impacted by Title 42 since the Biden administration took office.”

As noted in recent weekly updates, a similar encampment of asylum seeking migrants, mostly made up of people expelled under Title 42, has also sprung up on the eastern end of the border, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.

(Encampments at the border also came up during a May 26 congressional hearing, when the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), asked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about “tent cities that have been set up on the northern border of Mexico, I’m assuming, I think those for set up for the adults that are waiting for this Title 42 authority to go.” (This is incorrect, the ‘tent cities’ include many families.) In his response, Mayorkas made no mention of the encampments in Tijuana and Reynosa. He centered his answer on an earlier encampment, in the city of Matamoros, where those subject to the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy had been living until the Biden administration terminated the policy earlier this year.)

Pressure on Biden to end Title 42

As a May 24 New York Times analysis indicates, the humanitarian effect of expulsions, ongoing litigation to stop them, and expressions like the UNHCR’s call to end Title 42 discussed in last week’s update, are putting great pressure on the Biden administration to end the policy.

Times reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs notes that Vice President Kamala Harris, who as a senator signed a letter opposing Title 42, “has changed her view on the policy.” Kanno-Youngs tweeted on May 26, “In a private call yesterday for advocates, a White House official, Alida Garcia, was asked about the rule. She called it ‘a tool for the pandemic.’ Did not give timeline.” 

Administration officials insist that they are working hard to build capacity to receive and process asylum seekers at the border. “Building asylum back better,” Mayorkas put it during the May 26 hearing. Part of that is the construction of a second Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “Central Processing Center” in El Paso, supplementing one built in early 2020, that may be large enough “to accommodate 965 detainees and a staff of 200 for the processing and temporary holding of migrants who have crossed into the U.S.,” the El Paso Times reported. Plans for the new processing center actually began under the Trump administration, using funds Congress assigned in a mid-2019 emergency supplemental appropriation.

Part of the gradual opening of asylum capacity and gradual closure of Title 42 is the deal between ACLU lawsuit plaintiffs and DHS, reported in last week’s update, to allow 250 families or individuals to enter the United States each day to begin their asylum claims. Now, at the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, KPBS reports, “Every morning and afternoon, Customs and Border Protection agents call out names.” It adds,

Deciding who ends up on the list that gets sent to the U.S. government is up to these service providers on the ground in Tijuana. Groups including Al Otro Lado and Casa del Migrante have been working with migrants in the camp and nearby shelters to help identify some of those 250 individuals. It’s based not on their claims of asylum from their home countries, but how much danger they face in Mexico.

“However,” the above-cited medical providers say in their May 27 LA Times op-ed, “this is nowhere near sufficient to address the widespread human rights violations and humanitarian crisis we see every day in Tijuana.”

In a whistleblower complaint, two subject-matter experts who do work for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) denounced the harms of family detention and found that Title 42 is causing the “de facto separation of children from their families, just on the Mexican side of the border.” The complaint is managed by the Government Accountability Project and was shared by the New York Times.

“There is even less of a public health justification now, when, more than a year later, arriving asylum seekers could be easily screened and tested, and currently those over 16 vaccinated, in a way that protects the public health,” the medical experts wrote.

Mayorkas testimony on eve of budget submission

The Biden administration is to submit its detailed DHS 2022 budget request (along with the rest of the federal budget) on May 28. As of this writing on the morning of the 28th, it has not appeared yet. As noted above, DHS Secretary Mayorkas testified before Senate appropriators about the funding request on May 26.

On April 9, the White House had submitted an overview document, called the “skinny budget,” that provided a few top-line numbers:

  • $52 billion for DHS overall (Mayorkas said $52.2 billion on the 26th), “approximately equal to the 2021 enacted level.”
  • $1.2 billion for border infrastructure: for ports of entry, technology, and custody of migrants, but none of it for border wall-building. Prior years’ border wall appropriations would be canceled.
  • Big increases in budget for the offices of professional responsibility (internal affairs) at CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and for DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which receives complaints.

Sen. Capito criticized the budget request’s lack of an increase for DHS over 2021 levels: “Despite every other agency receiving substantial increases in funding, the Department of Homeland Security stands alone as the only department held virtually flat from last year.” However, the $52 billion in 2021 and 2022 is $10 billion more than 2017, $5 billion more than 2018, $3 billion more than 2019, and nearly $2 billion more than 2020.

Mayorkas told The Washington Post that DHS does not plan any 2022 cuts to staffing or detention capacity at ICE. He promised the subcommittee that the Biden administration would notify the appropriators if dealing with the 2021 increase in migration makes it necessary to reprogram or transfer funds from other DHS accounts. “I would anticipate that we will indeed seek a reprogramming, but that’s something that we are assessing right now.”

The stop to border wall funding and the overall leveling-off of the budget could make the Homeland Security bill’s passage contentious in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Though it is chaired by Democrats in the 50-50 Senate, the Committee has 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, leaving little room for maneuver to full committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut).

Unaccompanied children updates

During three of the past four weeks, the daily number of non-Mexican migrant children arriving unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border has stayed within a daily average of 360 to 390 per day. (During the other week, the number was even lower.) This rate of arrivals points to about 11,500 non-Mexican unaccompanied children (plus perhaps 2,000 Mexican children who are quickly deported) during the month of May—a significant drop from 16,500 non-Mexican kids in March and 14,700 in April.

The population of children in Border Patrol’s inadequate holding facilities, awaiting handoffs to the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) network of short-term shelters, has leveled off in the 600s. Handoffs from Border Patrol to ORR are mostly happening within 24 hours—not more than a week, as was happening in late March and early April.

The number of children in ORR custody, including 13 large and increasingly controversial temporary emergency shelters, remains over 18,000, though this population is at its lowest level in about six weeks. During three of the past four weeks, ORR has discharged an average of more than 500 kids per day to relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will live while their protection claims are adjudicated. With about 360-390 children being newly apprehended and over 500 discharged each day, the population of unaccompanied kids in U.S. government custody is gradually but steadily decreasing.

Press reports are uncovering troubling details about life in ORR’s emergency shelters. While the agency prohibits nearly all access to the facilities and requires employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, reporters have talked to some discharged children and to some unidentified employees about what’s going on inside.

A 16-year-old who spent several days at Border Patrol’s tent-based processing facility in Donna, Texas told the BBC “there were 80 girls in her cubicle and that she and most of the children were wet under their blankets, due to dripping pipes. ‘We all woke up wet,’ she said. ‘We slept on our sides, all hugged, so we stayed warm.’” Other children at Donna told of being given expired, rotten, or uncooked food. Some went many days at a time without being able to shower, and contracted lice. A 10-year-old girl told BBC “the guards threatened the children if they did not keep their cramped quarters clean. ‘Sometimes they would tell us that if we were doing a lot of mess, they were going to punish us by leaving us there more days.’”

At the Dallas convention center where ORR is keeping hundreds of kids who need to be placed with relatives or sponsors, “The children always complain about not having enough, not eating enough,” a staff member told BBC, adding that the site is cold, the boys each have one thin blanket, they are forced to spend most of their time by their cots in the main convention hall, and are given only 30 minutes of indoor recreation twice per week.

4,500 children are currently at an emergency shelter site at Fort Bliss, a large Army base outside El Paso, Texas, a site that can hold up to 10,000. There, a source told BBC, “hundreds of children are in Covid isolation, and there are designated tents at the site now for scabies and lice, of which there are also outbreaks. Sources say the living conditions are unsanitary, and that there has been at least one report of sexual abuse in the girls’ tent.”

A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who spent 25 days at Fort Bliss told CBS, “We were trapped. We would only go to the bathroom and return to the cots.” Even though his mother was in the United States and willing to sponsor him, he did not get to talk to a case manager for three weeks.

Of the 4,500 unaccompanied kids at Fort Bliss as of May 14, government data seen by CBS andVice show, nearly 600 had been there for at least 40 days. 1,675 had been there for at least 30 days.

Vice reports that the contractor hired to set up and administer the Fort Bliss site, Alabama-based Rapid Deployment Inc., has received $614.3 million for its services; the contracts expire May 30 but could be extended through October. Rapid Deployment has built emergency shelters for natural disaster victims, but is not experienced in childcare.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS), which oversees ORR, has abandoned plans to use the Fort Bliss facility to shelter “tender age” children (under 12 years old), CBS reports. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, toured the Fort Bliss site on May 21 and told Vice that she “left convinced that ‘mega sites’ are a bad idea.’” She continued, “We need to break down these big sites. I find them depressing and disheartening. The bigger the bureaucracy, the bigger the facility, the bigger the problem. I’ve made that very clear.”

Links

  • A DHS Office of Inspector General report dated May 18 found that between July 2017 and July 2018, “ICE removed at least 348 parents separated from their children without documenting that those parents wanted to leave their children in the United States. In fact, ICE removed some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country.” This comes after a scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report, which found that then-attorney general Jeff Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from their policies, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.
  • In two separate incidents this week, medical personnel in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just west of El Paso, had to medically evacuate people who fell from the border wall. One was a 39-year-old Mexican woman who “suffered serious head injuries.” Sunland Park’s fire chief told Newsweek, “There are rope ladders and other tools to help migrants climb up on the Mexico side but nothing to assist them on the U.S. side, so scaling down the steel bars is a dangerous feat.” In fact, this week on the Mexican side across from Sunland Park, in western Ciudad Juárez, immigration authorities recovered two more people who suffered injuries after falling from the wall. 
  • Those who perform initial “credible fear” interviews of asylum seekers “are not trained psychologists, therapists, or social workers,” writes attorney Elizabeth Silver at the Los Angeles Review of Books. “In many cases, they are not even trained asylum officers; in fact, they are often Customs and Border Protection officers with limited training in the interview process and an entire background based in law enforcement.”
  • The Associated Press details how two immigration judges were responsible for many of 5,600 “Remain in Mexico” cases that got dismissed in San Diego during the Trump administration. In some cases, due process for asylum seekers was likely violated. At times, so that Mexico would take them back, CBP sent them across the border with “tear sheets” showing court dates that were, in fact, fake.
  • A delegation of 12 Republican members of the House Border Security Caucus was “physically restricted” from visiting the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center (DEA EPIC), Fox News reported. In past years, WOLA has also been refused permission to visit the secretive facility, located on the grounds of Fort Bliss.
  • “Border Patrol agents have apprehended 2,217 Romanians so far in fiscal year 2021, more than the 266 caught in fiscal 2020 and the 289 in fiscal 2019,” Reuters reports, noting that they are mostly members of the frequently persecuted Roma ethnic group.
  • Several ICE detention centers around the United States are experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases. The agency blames newly arrived immigrants, while critics say it is failing to systematically administer vaccines to detainees, according to the Arizona Republic and the American South. The mid-May population in ICE detention centers (19,041) is much lower than pre-pandemic levels, but 34 percent greater than at the end of the Trump administration. This is in large part due to more adults apprehended at the border and not expelled under Title 42.
  • The New Yorker features a short film by Erin Semine Kokdil, “Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me,” telling the story of Central American mothers searching in Mexico for migrant children who disappeared there.
  • Using some remarkable e-mail communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Bob Moore at El Paso Matters reconstructs Border Patrol’s plan to carry out a “shock and awe” crowd control exercise in the city on Election Day 2018. The plan was abandoned at the last minute. “Not sure it’s going to deter anyone at this point in their journey but it sure will rile up the local advocacy groups,” a Border Patrol agent in charge wrote in one of several memorable e-mails.

At Razón Pública: How is the National Strike seen from Washington?

Here is an English translation of a piece that ran in Colombia’s Razón Pública on Monday.

How is the National Strike seen from Washington?

Written by Adam Isacson May 24, 2021

Although many U.S. congressmen have rejected police violence in Colombia, the Biden administration continues to remain silent. Why?

Biden’s silence

Four weeks of the national strike have passed and the administration of Joe Biden has not said much about the current situation in Colombia.

The silence is partly explained by the fact that the U.S. government has other priorities and that politicians and diplomats do not like to speak publicly about the behavior of their allies when they disagree with them. The unfortunate consequence is that silence is misinterpreted as indifference or as an act of support for the security forces in Colombia.

But what is happening in Colombia has not gone unnoticed in Washington. A large number of progressive members of Congress, moved by videos of police brutality, has expressed outrage at the human rights violations, mostly committed by government forces. A small number of conservative voices have repeated some of the Duque government’s arguments: that the protests are the work of organized agitators.

More moderate legislators have either said nothing or taken a Solomonic position: “both sides are to blame.” For now, it appears that the Biden administration’s response follows the line of the moderates, who remain silent.

The progressives

Some of the U.S. voices calling on the Duque administration to curb police violence are already well known in Colombia.

Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern was the first to speak out on the issue. McGovern has visited Colombia repeatedly over the past twenty years and now heads the powerful House Rules Committee.

On May 3, he tweeted, “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend. U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”

The “Leahy Law” prohibits military assistance (though not the sale of military equipment) to foreign security forces with a pattern of serious human rights violations, without effective state action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although ESMAD does not receive U.S. assistance, the tear gas they use is made in the United States. But the Colombian state buys these and other equipment with its own funds.

On May 11, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who gives the law its name, tweeted, “It is shocking to see the violent police response by the Colombian govt of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters. Legitimate grievances, while no excuse for violence or vandalism, should be a cause for dialogue, not excessive force. If the Colombian govt has solid evidence that protests are being orchestrated by terrorists, as alleged, produce the evidence and arrest the perpetrators. If not then law abiding Colombians will understandably lose patience with their leaders.” Senator Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the most powerful members of the chamber, and a veteran Colombia watcher.

Another high-level Democrat who strongly criticized the Colombian government was New York Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, who has championed the rights of Colombian Afro-descendants and now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On May 4, Meeks tweeted, “I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable.”

Other progressives, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Texas Democratic Representative Joaquín Castro and New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also expressed their concern on social media and in press releases.

On May 14, 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where they asked the State Department to:

  • more forcefully denounce police brutality;
  • suspend all aid to the Colombian police;
  • stop the sale of riot control equipment;
  • publicly reject statements by Colombian officials linking protesters to terrorist groups; and
  • urge and even facilitate dialogue.

The conservatives

While progressives have been notably active, U.S. right-wing figures have been rather quiet.

On May 6, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”

If this sounds vaguely like the rhetoric of “molecular revolution dissipated” it is because many of Senator Rubio’s Colombian constituents are aligned with Uribismo. In South Florida, the Colombian protests are a frequent topic of conversation on Spanish-language radio, where commentators view the demonstrations as the result of a “hybrid warfare” strategy by the left.

Rubio’s tweet is the only statement on the strike that I have seen from a Republican member of the U.S. Congress. But that doesn’t mean the right is staying silent: a conservative Washington think tank called the Center for a Secure Free Society released a report on May 17 entitled “Asymmetric Assault on Colombia,” in which it argued that “the Colombian people, especially the peaceful protestors, are not the culprits in the crisis—they are the victims.”

They claim that the protesters, who lack agency, have been misled by international agitators. The report continues: “As some of the most vulnerable in society, the poor and middle class in Colombia are targeted as tools of asymmetric warfare by foreign and domestic adversaries to the Colombian state”.

The moderates and the Biden administration

As vocal as progressives are, and will continue to be, they alone will not get the Biden administration to act decisively against police violence in Colombia.

Much depends on what moderates in the Democratic Party, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., or Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, do or say. Both have so far remained silent.

These and other lawmakers, who are heard by Biden, do not dismiss the progressives’ arguments, although they may not share some recommendations, such as freezing police aid. And they are more likely to be in touch with the Colombian embassy and business community.

For its part, the Biden administration has expressed only mild concern. On May 4, Juan Gonzalez, White House National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted, “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” Two days later Gonzalez told The Hill: “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”

The State Department issued a statement on May 4 with a message to both sides: “All over the world, citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights.”

A long-standing relationship

The Biden administration wants to be cautious for a primarily geopolitical reason: it does not want to clash with one of its few strong allies in the region, one that shares borders with Venezuela, while Chinese and Russian influence appears to be growing. At the same time, the Biden administration doesn’t ignore the long and deep relationship the United States has maintained with the Colombian police, forged since before the fight against the Medellin and Cali cartels.

I estimate that U.S. cooperation with the Colombian Police will amount to about $150 to $160 million in 2021 (out of a total police and military aid package of about $250 million, which in turn is part of a $520 million aid package). The purposes of this cooperation include:

  • coca eradication;
  • cocaine interdiction;
  • cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in operations against drug traffickers;
  • intelligence sharing with police Special Investigation Units (SIU);
  • assistance in increasing the presence of rural police (Carabineros) and police posts in conflictive territories;
  • cooperation on extraditions and Interpol cases; and
  • cooperation on training other countries’ forces.

The relationship between the U.S. government and the Colombian police runs deep: you can see it in the large number of olive green uniforms circulating in the corridors and on the sidewalks if you visit the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

So it is not hard to understand why Biden administration officials are reluctant to talk about freezing aid or sales to the police, and why their public statements have been far softer than those of the UN, the European Union and the OAS mission.

At El Espectador: “People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”

Here’s an English translation of my interview with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Sunday’s edition of Colombia’s El Espectador.

“People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”
Politics 22 May 2021 – 10:00 p. m.

By: Cecilia Orozco Tascón

A conversation with Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an influential think tank in the U.S. capital. Isacson discusses the law and order situation in Colombia, its impact on the Biden administration, the international impact of allegations of police abuse, and the possibility of “authoritarian populism” winning the 2022 elections.

You have been an analyst of the political situation in Colombia for more than 20 years from the research centers where you have worked. To what do you attribute the social explosion of April and May 2021, outside the moment created by the pandemic and by a tax reform bill that was – to say the least – inopportune?

This could be the same social explosion that began in November 2019. If the year-end holidays and then the pandemic had not interrupted it, we would probably be talking about 18 months of continuous social unrest. The economic despair did not disappear; the anger at the government’s lack of empathy did not disappear; the pain for the lack of implementation of the Peace Agreement and the massacre of social leaders in remote territories did not disappear. On the contrary, all of the above were aggravated during the pandemic.

The country has not been, like other Latin American countries, a country of massive and sustained protests for days and weeks. Nor has it usually overthrown presidents. But this time, peaceful demonstrations and violent acts after them have been going on for almost a month continuously. What changed from its past, so that people decided to go out constantly despite the risk of COVID contagion and the danger of being injured or killed in the riots?

The big change came with the 2016 Peace Accord, because it reduced people’s fear of exercising their freedom of expression. The demobilization of the FARC removed the stigma attached to public protest. Prior to 2016, Colombia had a very large, violent, nationwide guerrilla group that was perceived as an existential threat. It was easy to label anyone who went out to protest as a “guerrilla” in order to delegitimize them, and many people did not dare to demonstrate because of that association. After the accord, the stigma disappeared or is much weaker. The Duque government still tries to present some protesters as linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents. However, these are regional groups that do not represent a great danger to the cities and it is not so convincing. In short, there is more political space for people to take to the streets and they are no longer afraid to express what they feel.

So, could it be said that although citizens knew they could demand their rights, they repressed themselves?

Yes. There was fear of expressing themselves publicly because of the stigmatization of being labeled as “guerrillas” and also because of the social contempt with which the demonstrators were viewed.

People from the governing party and those in uniform maintain that there is a systematic process: first, the massive, peaceful, daytime marches. Then, the nighttime ones that turn into riots produced by individuals who destroy public and private property. Do you think there is a “terrorist” plan of forces opposed to the Duque administration?

Something similar was seen in the United States during the protests that erupted after the assassination of George Floyd. In the daytime, they were peaceful, massive, disciplined, and inspiring. At night, especially in the first two weeks, a small number of people would break windows, set fire to property and clash with the police. On some occasions, these were young people who had become politically radicalized and were filled with hatred for the police, whose aggressive response then inflamed them even further. In others, they were criminals seeking economic gain, almost always through looting. In both cases, the fringe of late-night agitators gave the Trump administration the pretext to use rhetoric delegitimizing Black Lives Matter protesters and their demands. Trump focused his attacks against the demonstrations on something called “antifa” – short for “anti-fascist” – which is more a political posture than an actual group. There has no coordination of violence in the United States. A similar position now appears in Colombia: there is very little evidence of a national movement of violence, but the government tries to blame that activity on armed groups and even international agitators.

Regarding your mention of the “antifa” (supposed leftist extremists who would go, city by city, exporting vandals and vandalism), is the Trump strategy and that of the Colombian government when it blames the “castrochavistas” for vandalism and looting, is it the same and does it intend the same effects?

The term “castrochavista” is the closest thing there is to “antifa”: it means almost the same thing and is the same pretext to justify a violent official response and to disqualify the demonstrators.

But what would the government get out of lying? In any case, gaining time while the social order deteriorates does not seem to be beneficial for the administration nor for its party in the medium or long term when it is discovered that it was only trying to hide its inability to solve a problem?

It is a distraction that serves to avoid facing conversations with protesters, for example, about inequality, just as Trump did not want to talk about racism. It’s a way to put off decisions you don’t want to make by inventing phantoms that distort reality.

The electoral period will soon begin in the country. A scenario of street vandalism, looting and public disorder would be favorable to those who have traditionally fed on voters’ fear. Would this strategy of the ruling party, successful in the past, work in today’s Colombia?

The Democratic Center will use the scenes of violent disorder in the streets to mobilize its electoral base, that is, the roughly one third of Colombians who are hardcore Uribistas. The governing party needs that third of the country to vote massively, but what about the more moderate voters, who seem to share many of the protesters’ demands? They are unhappy with the violence of the protests, but they are also shocked by videos of police brutality. As long as the non-Uribista candidates do not propose anything that scares moderates – just as the slogan “defund the police” scared some moderates in the United States – the appeal of the Democratic Center may be limited to its most rabid base.

Taking into account the situation of permanent social unrest in the country, which does not seem likely to subside immediately, and according to your office’s analysis, do you see the possibility that democracy could be interrupted in Colombia?

It seems very unlikely to me that there will be a rupture of the constitutional order in Colombia. For that to happen, it would require a broad consensus on an opposition candidate or party, or the security forces declaring their lack of confidence in the president. But the picture is different: the opposition is divided, all institutions continue to support the current democratic rules, very few people are seriously calling for Duque’s resignation and most political actors are focused on the impending election campaign.

And what would be the attitude of the United States if there were a total rupture of democracy, for example, declaring and extending the figure of internal commotion [state of siege] or suspending next year’s elections?

In the case of a declaration of internal commotion, as it is a constitutional mechanism, perhaps the U.S. government would keep silent. But if an unconstitutional maneuver is made, such as postponing the elections or extending the current presidential term, I think the Biden administration would speak out because, at that point, the credibility of the United States would be at stake: it cannot criticize Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador for what is happening in each of those countries, and remain silent if its best friend in the region does the same.

The Duque government and his party have been conducting a prolonged fear campaign against the supposed possibility of Colombia becoming “another Venezuela”. In the analysis of Washington officials, is there also this fear of the popularity and high vote of political figures who are opposed to Duque and Uribe and would oppose a leftist triumph?

My perception is that Joe Biden sees himself as one of the few “post-populist” presidents in the world, who managed to remove an authoritarian from power by winning an election. His administration has distanced itself from or opposed populists on the left (Maduro), center (Bukele), and right (Bolsonaro). It could be expected to show the same discomfort with a candidate in Colombia, right or left, Uribista or socialist, who seeks to weaken institutions or collapse democratic checks and balances. At the same time, I do not believe that the Biden administration would oppose a leftist candidate who respects institutions and works within the framework of democratic rules.

U.S. Congressional leaders have called for suspending or not renewing aid to the Colombian police force because of evidence and reports of abuses of power in riot control, and because of protesters killed and injured by ESMAD intervention. How likely is it that the Biden administration will suspend its aid?

We have confirmed that the ESMAD does not receive aid, although it buys equipment manufactured in the United States. As for the institution, unless the human rights situation continues to worsen, it is unlikely that there will be a total suspension of aid to the National Police because the relationship with the United States is very close. It extends from eradication to drug interdiction, to DEA operations, to the establishment of Carabineros units, to the training of forces from other countries. However, there may be some important changes. Since Police General (r) Rosso Jose Serrano fired thousands of officers [in the 1990s], the institution was believed to be less corrupt, more respectful of human rights and more professional. Videos and accounts of abuses in the current protests and the aggressive words of the directors of the Colombian Police and Defense Ministry have alerted U.S. policymakers to the fact that the institution is now badly troubled. The United States is wrestling with its own need to implement police reform, and policy actors in Washington will be examining the situation in Colombia from that perspective.

From several think tanks there are proposals for dialogue to find a solution to the national crisis. Among these proposals, there are two directed to the United States: a. To demand an immediate reform of the Police. b. That while the ESMAD’s protocols are being reviewed, the sale to Colombia of “crowd control” material (dissuasion weapons, gases, tanks) be suspended. Could these requests be well received in Washington?

I believe that both proposals enjoy sympathy among Biden administration officials. But again, because of the long and close relationship with the Colombian police, they will prefer to speak privately. U.S. government officials should be aware that publicly expressing concern about unacceptable behavior by a partner does not mean breaking with that partner.

Does it mean that they privately scold and ask them to correct or else they will receive a financial or arms ban reprimand?

Yes. In some cases, if, for example, a military unit is prohibited from receiving aid by the Leahy Law (the U.S. will not provide foreign military assistance to human rights violators), such a prohibition will be communicated privately to the state. Where such lists [of banned units] exist, they are also kept in reserve. Uniformed personnel who have not been cleared or whose names are in the database of suspected human rights violators may not receive training in the U.S. or enter the country. [Note: “enter the country” was added by editors. Visa denial does not automatically accompany Leahy Law disapproval.]

In one of your articles, recently published by El Espectador, you state that if the Biden administration pushes the Duque administration to opt for the path of dialogue to face the current crisis, “it would be developing a framework” for all Latin America where several countries are facing “authoritarian populism”. What do you mean by this term and to which political phenomena are you referring to?

Worldwide, democracy is in retreat as leaders are being elected who ignore institutional controls, constantly lie, attack the media, call their opponents “terrorists” or worse, and seek to stay in power by any means. Venezuela and Russia were the pioneers, but it also happened in Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, El Salvador and many other countries. The United States just had such a president for four years, and he is leading one of our two main political parties. What is happening in Colombia today is a big test: whether democratic institutions can channel desperate social demands, stemming from generations of inequality, or not. The Peace Accord was a great vote of confidence in these institutions. Can Colombia resolve this crisis through dialogue without violence and without resorting to a populist figure? If so, Colombia would be an astonishing example for the rest of the world in this troubled beginning of the 21st century.

Or else, could “authoritarian populism” win in the 2022 election?

It is quite possible that an authoritarian populist candidate could win, yes. At both ideological extremes there may be candidates who see institutions as obstacles or who see themselves as the saviors of the country.

You are not only an expert in security matters but also in human rights. Could the Colombian state be subject to sanctions promoted by Washington, the United Nations and other organizations for the violation of the rights of demonstrators, in addition to the fact that it already has a negative record for the assassination of defenders, social leaders, and former combatants?

This really depends on the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] and the Colombian justice system. We know that human rights violations are occurring at an unacceptable level. Will Colombian institutions identify those responsible and hold them accountable? Will they do so in an efficient manner so that the victims don’t have to wait 10 years for a result? If so, it would be a hopeful break from a very bitter history of impunity in Colombia. If not, then, yes, there will be sanctions. U.S. law, for example, prohibits aid to units (police or military) that commit abuses with impunity. And the Inter-American System and the International Criminal Court are also there for cases in which a country’s judicial system proves unwilling or unable to bring to justice perpetrators of serious human rights violations.

It has been seen that the Duque government’s response to protests has been violent repression, even of peaceful demonstrations. While the official language is partially conciliatory, the shock troops (ESMAD and others) are authorized to attack, reduce, and capture. How can the Biden administration call out the national administration for its handling of street grievances?

Although the Biden administration values human rights much more than the Trump administration, it also thinks about stability and the geopolitical reality of the continent. It is concerned about any symptom of instability in a country considered a close ally, in a region facing challenges from Russia and China, sometimes through Venezuela. Meanwhile, the United States has a longstanding relationship with the Colombian police and doesn’t want to risk it with public criticism. That said, U.S. officials can’t possibly support the brutal tactics of units such as ESMAD, because they know that such tactics prolong and escalate protests unnecessarily. They must be aware that such practices continue to worsen the instability they are so concerned about.

Colombia peace update: May 22, 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.

Nationwide protest updates

As of May 20, the database of protest-related deaths maintained by the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz totaled 51 victims of fatalities: 50 civilians and one police agent. In 35 cases for which the groups could name an alleged perpetrator, 29 were police, of whom 18 were likely members of the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD). Six likely perpetrators were civilians. Of the 51 killings, 38 took place in Cali or its environs. Eight people died between May 17 and 20, all in the Cali metropolitan area.

José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, tweeted that his organization has received credible information about 58 deaths in the context of the protests, of which it has been able to confirm 19.

Major events

  • “Negotiations,” a mechanism more formal than “dialogues,” began on May 16 between the government and the Strike Committee, the group of mostly union leaders that convened the ongoing National Strike on April 28. The Committee’s most immediate of 19 demands is that the government withdraw the Army and the ESMAD riot police, cease excessive use of force, and allow the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to carry out a field visit.
  • On May 16 President Iván Duque ordered a “maximum operational capacity” deployment of soldiers and police to clear road blockades set up around the country. By the end of the week, dozens of blockades remained.
  • In an effort to get businesses to hire young people, Duque also said the government would subsidize 25 percent of the minimum wage of all workers between 18 and 28 years old.
  • Protests grew violent the evening of May 16 and on May 17 in Yumbo, near Cali. A harsh response to protests by the ESMAD riot police may have prolonged the chaos.
  • In a May 17 statement, the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), which represents numerous Indigenous communities in southwestern Colombia, said it was not participating in ongoing negotiations between the government and the Strike Committee.
  • President Duque confirmed on May 18 that Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez will also serve as foreign minister, replacing the departed Claudia Blum. As Colombian law requires presidential candidates to have held no other government office during the year prior to elections, this means Ramírez will not be a presidential candidate in May 2022. La Silla Vacía contends that a key reason for Blum’s departure from the foreign ministry was that she was being undercut by Vice-Minister Adriana Mejía, who sent a very strongly worded letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights without Blum’s approval.
  • Cali’s police chief, Gen. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, resigned on May 18 after four and a half months on the job.
  • Colombia’s Senate and House of Representatives voted on May 19 to oppose a healthcare system reform bill that the National Strike protesters had opposed.
  • A court in Ibagué, Tolima agreed on May 19 with the civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which argued that the police killing of protester Santiago Murillo should not go to the military justice system. Murillo was killed on May 1 in Ibagué; the Constitutional Court now must decide which justice system will try his killers.
  • The military justice system “has historically been criticized for its slowness in cases, for allegations of impunity in many others, or because many find it difficult to believe that justice can be served when those investigating are colleagues, friends or subordinates,” El Espectador pointed out to that system’s director, Fabio Espitia. He responded, “If any decision is issued affecting a member of the security forces, ideologues will use that decision to delegitimize the security forces.”
  • South America’s soccer federation CONMEBOL decided on May 20 that conditions in Colombia would not allow the country to host any games of the June 13-July 10 Copa América tournament.
  • On May 20 the Standard and Poor’s credit-rating agency downgraded Colombia’s foreign currency debt. This, the Economist notes, ends “a decade in which it had enjoyed investment-grade status.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano said on May 20 that forces in Cali had captured 25 people who “by way of outsourcing, supplied firearms and explosive devices to the protagonists of the latest riots.” Among those captured was an individual whom Molano alleged was involved in “politico-organizational activity of the masses” on behalf of the ELN’s urban units.
  • Indigenous protesters blocking the Pan-American Highway in Cauca allowed a three-day “humanitarian corridor” to allow vehicles transporting essential times to pass through from May 20 to 23. On May 20, masked individuals seeking to re-block the highway confronted Indigenous Guards in Caldono, Cauca.
  • On May 21 representatives of the government and the Strike Committee held a third meeting in the framework of ongoing negotiations. “Today we’re focused on pragmatic issues, and that is that 17 million people are suffering from hunger, 21 million are living in poverty,” said Strike Committee member Francisco Maltés of the CUT labor federation.
  • After nearly three days in Medellín, a minga (coming together) of Antioquia indigenous groups departed on May 21 after reaching agreements with the governor’s office about investments in health, education, housing, and other demands. The negotiation process seemed to go smoothly and respectfully.

Abuse allegations

  • As of May 19, 134 people were still “urgently” missing in the context of protests, according to official data cited by Verdad Abierta. The Fiscalía and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported locating 261 missing people, mostly in police custody.
  • At Vice, Joshua Collins tells the story of a 17-year-old protester who apparently took her own life in Popayán on May 14, two days after she said she was sexually abused by police. The police denied her story until a human rights lawyer released video of her arrest. El Espectador interviewed the victim’s mother.
  • A May 17 El Espectador feature profiles 14 young protesters who suffered severe eye damage from “non-lethal” police riot control weapons, particularly 12-gauge shotguns firing rubber projectiles.
  • Dairo Hidalgo, a respected artist and youth leader in Medellín’s poor Comuna 13 neighborhood, inexplicably appeared on a police “most wanted” poster featuring protesters accused of committing acts of violence and vandalism.
  • A shootout broke out the night of May 19 in Cali’s Calipso neighborhood between police and armed individuals near a supermarket. A young woman was killed in the crossfire.
  • A Washington Post multimedia team analyzed videos of police abuse and found that they show “how Colombian police appear to have crossed a lethal line.”
  • Protesters denounced on May 20 that police in civilian clothing fired on them in Cali. This is one of several denunciations of armed plainclothes people, at times alleged to be linked to security forces, firing on protesters in Cali.
  • By May 21, Defensoría had counted 23 cases of sexual violence, “within a universe of 106 reports of gender-based violence against women and persons with diverse sexual orientation.” As of that date, Temblores had counted 21 cases of sexual violence.
  • Attorney Víctor Mosquera said on May 21 that he is appealing to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission on behalf of a female police agent who suffered torture and sexual violence at the hands of a mob during protests in Cali on April 29.
  • “Yes, the National Police will reform,” the force’s commander, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, told El Tiempo in an article that ran on May 21. As of May 17, 122 disciplinary investigations had been opened regarding allegations of protest-related abuse. Gen. Vargas said that human rights training and certification would be a priority, along with “adjustments” to the ESMAD riot police. “We are the first to reject illegal behavior by an officer and we will ask for forgiveness when there’s a judicial decision,” Vargas told Reuters on May 17.

The U.S. angle

  • Marta Lucía Ramírez, now filling double duty as vice president and foreign minister, began a multi-day trip to the United States on May 21.
  • On May 19, the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee met to consider the Biden administration’s nomination of career diplomat Brian Nichols to be the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. In nearly two hours of questioning of Nichols and a second nominee, there was only one mention of Colombia, an exchange between Nichols and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) that took a minute and five seconds. Markey asked “what steps should the U.S. government be taking to decrease violence and suppression of ordinary citizens” in Colombia. Noting that “the situation in Colombia is complicated,” Nichols called for engaging the Duque government on “de-escalating challenges,” supporting economic recovery, and prioritizing “getting back on track to implementation of the peace agreement.”
  • In south Florida, where a recent poll found Latinos agreeing “that keeping socialism out of Florida is a bigger issue than jobs,” conservative leaders are “on the airwaves and social media telling Latinos not only that Marxist forces started the protests—but that President Biden and the Democrats are allied with those forces,” local journalist Tim Padgett told WRLN.
  • At Foreign Policy, Genevieve Glatsky looks into the Leahy Law or other human rights measures that might interrupt the flow of U.S. assistance to Colombia’s police.

Analyses

  • At the New York Times, Amanda Taub discusses how, in Colombia and elsewhere, police violence backfires by escalating, prolonging, and encouraging more people to participate in protest movements.
  • At Spain’s El País, Sally Palomino points out how the response to protests, especially in Cali, has highlighted longstanding racism and classism.
  • “Despite decent growth since the early 2000s, inequality remains high,” recalls a report in the Economist. “At the current rate of improvement, it would take 11 generations for descendants of a poor Colombian to attain the average income, estimates the OECD.”
  • At the Washington Post, Erika Moreno of Creighton University finds serious fault with the Defensoría, which lacks effective independence from the executive. “[T]he agency will probably follow what it has done in the past and give a mild response to accusations against members of the military and security apparatus.”
  • At La Silla Vacía, director Juanita León reflects on how the dividing lines around Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—the “yes” and “no” sides of the October plebiscite—are similarly drawn around the National Strike. “While the Uribistas consider that the way out is more authority and a strong hand, the Yes supporters believe that what is needed is to deepen social reforms and deliberation.”
  • Also at La Silla, negotiation expert Julián Arévalo discusses some of the “best practices” for successful dialogues that President Duque and his government are ignoring right now.

Jesus Santrich is killed in Venezuela

One of the best-known former FARC leaders was killed, probably in Venezuela’s state of Zulia, probably during the beginning of the week. Seuxis Hernandez alias Jesús Santrich, a 53-year-old, nearly blind guerrilla ideologue who returned to arms in 2019, was killed under circumstances that remain unclear.

Jesús Santrich was very close to Iván Márquez, the top leader who led the FARC’s negotiating team in Havana between 2012 and 2016. At the negotiations, Santrich was noted for his hardline views and occasional inflammatory statements.

In April 2018, police arrested Santrich on charges of conspiring to send cocaine to the United States during the post-peace accord period. Video appeared to show Santrich, who was brought into a meeting with DEA informants by Iván Márquez’s nephew, assenting to a drug deal. A year later, Santrich was released from prison when the transitional justice tribunal (JEP) decided there was insufficient evidence to prove that Santrich had committed a crime. Upon his May 2019 release, Santrich was sworn into Colombia’s House of Representatives—then disappeared several days later. He resurfaced in August in a video alongside Iván Márquez and other former guerrilla leaders, carrying a weapon as Márquez announced their rearmament as a dissident group called the “Segunda Marquetalia.” (Marquetalia was the site of the 1964 Army attack that gave rise to the FARC.)

A May 18 statement from the Segunda Marquetalia alleged that Colombian Army commandos entered Venezuelan territory and intercepted a vehicle in which Santrich was traveling, just over the border from Colombia in the northern Serranía de Perijá region. The statement said the troops killed Santrich, cut off his pinky finger, and flew back into Colombia in a yellow helicopter.

Defense Minister Diego Molano confirmed that the government had heard word of Santrich’s death. The Venezuelan government has said nothing. No image of a body has emerged.

Colombian media published other rumors, among them that Santrich was killed by mercenaries seeking reward money, or that the killing was the work of a rival, larger FARC dissident band, the “First Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who had rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized.

Because Santrich was more of an ideologist than a military strategist or financial coordinator, and probably commanded few if any fighters, his death may have little impact on the balance of power between the Colombian armed groups that operate with much freedom inside Venezuela. These include the Segunda Marquetalia, the First Front, the ELN, and smaller paramilitary-descended or narcotrafficking groups. For the Segunda Marquetalia, the loss of Santrich is probably more of a symbolic than a strategic blow.

His killing draws attention to Zulia, another part of the chaotic Colombia-Venezuela border, after more than two months of fighting further south and east in Venezuela’s Apure state, across from Colombia’s Arauca department. There, the 10th Front, apparently part of the Gentil Duarte organization, has faced the Venezuelan military’s largest offensive in many years. The 10th Front has perhaps 300 fighters, a Colombian Army source tells La Silla Vacía, of which about 60 are in Colombia.

That offensive may have hit the population of Apure’s borderlands harder than it has hit the 10th Front. More than 6,000 Venezuelan citizens have fled to Colombia, denouncing brutal abuse at the hands of the Venezuelan military and other security forces. The 10th Front, however, has hit the Venezuelan military quite hard, killing at least 16 soldiers. It continues to hold eight soldiers captive, and is reportedly in talks with at least a faction of the Venezuelan Army.

Venezuelan military analyst Jackeline Benarroche told Tal Cual that the Venezuelan military’s performance in Apure leaves big questions about its combat capacity, its professionalism, and the obsolescence of some of its equipment. “They sent many troops to try to control, but they did not evaluate well the nature of the people they were going to confront, nor the scope of the situation and the migration to Colombia.” At Efecto Cocuyo, analyst Javier Mayorca sees the border tensions worsening further: “It is not going to end in the immediate future, it can be prolonged and extended in geographical terms. If one connects the dots, one begins to see an increasingly extensive border area where there are various interests in dispute.”

High court rescues special congressional seats for victims

By a 5-3 vote on May 21, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld—rescued from oblivion, really—a key commitment of the peace accord’s second chapter. For the next two congressional terms (2022-2030), Colombia’s 172-seat House of Representatives will have 16 more seats. Each will be held by an elected representative of conflict victims, from one of the zones hit hardest by the conflict with the FARC. These representatives may not be from established political parties, including the party formed by the former FARC: they should come from victims’ organizations.

This commitment of section 2.3.6 of the peace accord had appeared= dead. In 2017, a bill to create the special congressional districts for victims passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November. That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption.

Legal challenges to revive the “special peace districts” foundered in lower courts, and this promise of the accord appeared nearly dead. In December 2019, though, Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case and review the 2017 Senate vote.

The Court has not issued details of its decision yet, so timetables are not clear. But it appears certain that most of Colombia’s 9 million victims will soon have a louder voice in the legislature.

Links

  • Somos Defensores published its annual report covering attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia in 2020. The group counted 199 murders of social leaders, a 60 percent increase over 2019. The report profiles the 95 people the group verified as murdered during the second half of the year.
  • A video of members of the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group threatening a community just 15 minutes’ drive from Montería, the capital of Córdoba department, shows the continued power of paramilitarism in this region of northwestern Colombia, La Silla Vacía explains. At the same site, Reynell Badillo Sarmiento and Luis Fernando Trejos contend that more than “paramilitarism,” what plagues Córdoba is “criminal governance,” noting that “it is difficult to argue that the AGC [Gulf Clan] is a paramilitary group.”
  • With U.S. backing, a team of Colombian police came up with a list of recommendations for Haiti, which is suffering a rash of kidnappings, Reuters reports.
  • After revelations that it has sustained contacts via intermediaries with the ELN, the Duque government named Tulio Gilberto Astudillo Victoria alias Juan Carlos Cuéllar, a captured member of the group, to serve as a “gestor de paz” (official peace intermediary). Cuéllar has played this role before. This new status will allow Cuéllar to be freed from prison.
  • Security forces in Santander captured alias “Matamba,” a narcotrafficker who leads an armed group called La Cordillera Sur, active in northern Nariño department. The Fiscalía believes him to be aligned with the Gulf Clan, though the police say he had forged a pact with the Nueva Marquetalia FARC dissident group, El Espectador reports.
  • The Fiscalía ordered house arrest for Cristian Saavedra Arias, the soldier who shot and killed Juliana Giraldo, a trans woman, at a checkpoint in Miranda, Cauca in September 2020.
  • While the AP noted that leading 2018 leftist candidate Gustavo Petro has maintained a surprisingly low profile during the protests, government-aligned Semana magazine put a chaotic image of Petro on its cover with the headline “Petro, enough is enough!”
  • “The fact that, despite all the evidence against it, the Colombian state continues to try to reinstate glyphosate spraying [to eradicate coca, with U.S. backing] only demonstrates this administration’s disinterest towards its most vulnerable citizens,” writes Olga Behar in an excellent overview essay in Spanish at the Washington Post.

Weekly Border Update: May 21, 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’s gradual loosening continues

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, issued an unusually direct statement on May 20 voicing alarm about a major state’s treatment of protection-seeking migrants. Grandi called on the U.S. government “to swiftly lift” the pandemic measure known as “Title 42,” for the part of the U.S. Code that allows border closures during quarantines. Since March 2020, Title 42 has swiftly expelled more than 750,000 undocumented migrants apprehended at the border back to Mexico or their countries of origin—including nearly all migrants who would seek asylum or other protection.

The Trump administration justified the mass expulsions in the name of public health, though later reporting revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not view it as necessary to expel asylum seekers. Still, the Biden administration has maintained the expulsions order, with no timetable for lifting it.

“The use of Title 42 is not a source of pleasure, but rather frankly, a source of pain,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on April 30, adding “the timeline is as quickly as possible.” Todd Miller, the official performing the duties of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner, told the House Appropriations Committee on May 19 that his agency is “preparing for the eventuality of Title 42 to be lifted.”

The UNHCR statement calls on the United States “to restore access to asylum for the people whose lives depend on it, in line with international legal and human rights obligations.” Grandi acknowledges that in its first four months, the Biden administration has been building capacity—CBP’s Miller mentioned five “soft-sided,” or tent-based, processing facilities coming online near ports of entry—and is now allowing a few vulnerable asylum-seekers to present in the United States. “A system which allows a small number of asylum seekers to be admitted daily, however, carries with it a number of risks, and is not an adequate response.”

As noted in last week’s update, DHS has stopped a program of daily flights that were transporting asylum-seeking Central American families from parts of the border where Mexico was not allowing expulsions with young children, to other parts of the border where Mexico does allow such expulsions. That update also noted an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been in negotiations with the Biden administration over a lawsuit challenging Title 42 expulsions of families, to allow 35 of the most vulnerable expelled family members to re-enter the United States to pursue their protection claims on U.S. soil.

That number expanded this week. The ACLU told CBS News on May 18 that DHS has agreed to allow up to 250 of the most vulnerable asylum seekers to present inside the United States each day. “So far, 2,000 asylum-seekers have been admitted into the U.S. through the ACLU’s negotiations with the Biden administration,” the ACLU’s Lee Gelernt told CBS.

The modest increase in access to asylum is a stopgap measure. The 250 would be identified by advocacy groups. This “puts the burden of deciding who gets access on NGOs, which is really not our role,” Tracey Horan of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona told Public Radio International (PRI). The loosening of Title 42 is no substitute for the ACLU lawsuit, Gelernt told PRI. “We are troubled, to say the least, that the Biden administration has chosen to keep a Trump administration policy that was always a sham, was never justified by public health.”

Meanwhile, about 700 expelled asylum seekers remain stranded in the dangerous border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. A tent encampment in the Plaza de la República  near the port of entry is to be moved about a mile west to a space next to Reynosa’s church-run Senda de Vida shelter.

Remain in Mexico continues to unwind

The Biden administration meanwhile continues a slow but steady unwinding of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” policy, which in 2019 and 2020 sent more than 71,000 asylum-seeking migrants from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries back across the border into Mexico to await their U.S. hearings. After canceling Remain in Mexico on January 20, the administration has been working with UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to bring asylum seekers into the United States to pursue their claims.

As of the end of April, Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration data project reports, 8,387 asylum seekers had been brought into the United States under the Remain in Mexico unwinding. Another 18,087 people with open cases remained in Mexico. By May 14, the number permitted to enter the United States had risen to 10,707, a UN official told Border Report. “They’re extremely happy to be back. The program is unwinding extremely well. It was well thought out, well planned,” added Ruben Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.

Beyond the approximately 26,500 who still had open cases when the Biden administration took over, many migrants subject to “Remain in Mexico” had missed their court dates in the United States due to security reasons or other obstacles to showing up at a Mexican border city’s port of entry at the appointed time. Some were even being held by kidnappers when they were supposed to appear in court. As a result, U.S. immigration courts threw out their asylum claims because they were no-shows. BuzzFeed reported this week that DHS officials “have agreed that those ordered deported in absentia should have their cases reopened.”

One migrant subject to “Remain in Mexico” who will never get the chance to pursue his asylum case in the United States is Cristian San Martín Estrada, a citizen of Cuba. Estrada had been waiting in Mexico since 2019, when he was returned as an 18-year-old asylum seeker. He was scheduled to re-enter the United States “in the coming days,” according to a tweet from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Cristian San Martín Estrada was shot to death in Ciudad Juárez on the evening of May 17.

Documents reveal a CBP counter-terror unit’s focus on asylum lawyers

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a public interest law firm, shared with ProPublica’s Dara Lind some documents obtained from CBP through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. They reveal that U.S. asylum lawyers were flagged and interrogated by a secretive CBP unit, its “Tactical Terrorism Response Team,” apparently based on questionable and politicized intelligence.

El Paso-based asylum lawyer Taylor Levy (interviewed about her work in a May 2020 WOLA podcast) tells ProPublica that CBP held her for hours at the port of entry in January 2019, when she returned from dinner with friends in Ciudad Juárez. ProPublica reports, “She didn’t know why she was being questioned by an agent who’d introduced himself as a counterterrorism specialist,” along with attorney Héctor Ruiz.

The documents revealed that the Tactical Terrorism Response Team was acting on incorrect intelligence alleging that Levy had met with members of a October 2018 migrant “caravan.”

These “caravans”—migrants who, seeking to avoid having to pay a smuggler, attempted to cross Mexico in large groups for safety in numbers—never added up to more than a single-digit percentage of migration from Central America to the United States. Today, Mexican or Guatemalan forces tend to disperse caravans long before they get anywhere near the U.S. border.

Nonetheless, the caravan phenomenon had alarmed the Trump administration and conservative media outlets, leading the president to send active-duty troops to the border, where some remain today. Now we know that the Trump administration also devoted CBP’s counter-terrorism resources to caravan-related missions, and that it cast its net so widely as to include asylum lawyers.

Among the documents newly released to the Santa Fe Dreamers Project is a remarkable mid-2019 Border Patrol intelligence report from El Paso, which reads more like a Breitbart editorial than the work of intelligence professionals:

Mass migration from South America into the United States is said to be coordinated at some level by non profit organizations who wish to line their pockets with proceeds deriving from migrants transportation fees up to the U.S Mexico border, and ultimately proceeds deriving from the migrants paying for their asylum case lawyers once they have arrived to the United States.

The report, ProPublica states, “goes on to associate this effort with ‘other groups such as Antifa,’” which is not in fact a “group.”

Taylor Levy’s colleagues recall that she was critical of the migrant caravan tactic, and had not met with its members, nearly all of whom went to Tijuana, not Ciudad Juárez. Ruiz, the other lawyer, had spoken to an assembly of caravan participants when they passed through Mexico City, advising them about the stringency of U.S. asylum law and the low probability that those with unclear claims would be allowed to stay.

Levy and Ruiz “also recall being asked about their beliefs,” ProPublica continues. “Levy remembers an agent asking her why she worked for a Catholic aid organization if she didn’t believe in God, while Ruiz told ProPublica they were asked about their opinions of the Trump administration and the economy.”

A modest increase in unaccompanied children, amid concerns about emergency shelters

After weeks of steady decline, including a sharp drop during May 9-13, Border Patrol encountered a larger number of non-Mexican unaccompanied migrant children during May 16-19. The agency averaged 393 encounters with unaccompanied kids so far this week, similar to the 387 daily encounters two weeks ago but up sharply from last week’s 268.

This may just be a normal fluctuation, while arrivals of unaccompanied kids remain over 100 per day fewer than they were  in late March and early April. Other possible explanations could be seasonal variation, as May is often the heaviest month of the year for migration; smugglers adjusting to Mexico’s increased migrant interdiction efforts; more parents expelled under Title 42 making the gut-wrenching decision to separate and send their children across the border alone; or an increase in children from one or two particular countries.

The number of “encountered” children in Border Patrol’s holding facilities remains a tiny fraction of what it was, an average of 736 per day this week, compared to more than 5,000 at the end of March. This means that the agency remains able to hand unaccompanied kids over quickly to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A 2008 law requires that ORR shelter non-Mexican children while seeking to place them with relatives or other sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while the immigration court system considers their asylum or protection needs. (Most Mexican children are quickly deported, as the law allows, regardless of their protection needs.)

As of May 19, ORR had 19,344 unaccompanied migrant children in its shelter system. The agency expanded its capacity by hastily opening up 13 emergency facilities around the country, at sites like convention centers, tent camps, and a U.S. Army base, Fort Bliss, in El Paso.

Unlike ORR’s normal shelters, these emergency facilities are not licensed childcare facilities: instead, they more closely resemble shelters for hurricane evacuees, with rows of cots in giant rooms and few activities to pass the time. On May 14 HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra visited one such site, at the Long Beach, California convention center. He acknowledged that conditions at the various emergency facilities vary “site by site.”

Child welfare advocates have voiced alarm. Lawyers permitted to visit facilities under the 1997 Flores settlement agreement described to CBS News “limited access to showers, soiled clothes and undercooked food” and children feeling “sad and desperate,” even suicidal.

“As of late April,” CBS notes, “more than 300 migrant boys had spent over 50 days at a Dallas convention center” with no ability to go outside. At Fort Bliss, “multiple white tents…each house about 900 children, who sleep on bunk cots.” About 4,400 children are currently at the army base, and the number could grow to 10,000 as the pandemic’s ebbing causes other facilities, like convention centers, to revert to their original purposes.

“I know the administration wants to take a victory lap for moving children out of Border Patrol stations—and they deserve credit for doing that,” Leecia Welch of the National Center for Youth Law, one of the lawyers permitted to tour some facilities, told the New York Times. “But the truth is, thousands of traumatized children are still lingering in massive detention sites on military bases or convention centers, and many have been relegated to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.”

Under great pressure to do so, ORR has been working to speed its discharges of children from shelters to families and sponsors. The agency has discharged an average of 481 children per day this week, down slightly from over 500 during the previous two weeks. An HHS official told CBS News that children are spending an average of 29 days in its shelters, down from 42 days in late January. Obstacles to faster discharges include a shortage of case officers and the time-consuming nature of vetting relatives and sponsors, including background checks, to ensure that children will be safe with them.

Links

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is closing two ICE detention centers where alleged abuses of inmates had been widespread. The Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia gained notoriety last September when women detained there said they had been subject to non-consensual hysterectomies and other surgeries. Also closing is the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
  • On May 12, DHS requested that the Defense Department extend the Trump administration’s National Guard deployment at the border beyond September 30, when fiscal year 2021 ends. “The Department is currently considering that request,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said on May 18. Defense Department press secretary John Kirby would not confirm whether a post-September border presence would include active duty troops in addition to National Guardsmen, an unusual deployment that Trump launched in 2018. About 4,000 guardsmen remain at the border.
  • The number of internal affairs officers at CBP—professionals who investigate claims of corruption, human rights abuse, or other malfeasance—increased from 174 in 2015 to 252 in 2019. The agency would need about 750, the Cato Institute reports, to have a ratio of agents to internal affairs officers comparable to that of the New York Police Department.
  • Lawyers working with the Biden administration have located 54 more parents whom the Trump administration separated from their children in 2017 and 2018. “Now the parents of 391 children have yet to be reached, down from 445 in April,” NBC reported. Roughly 1,000 families remain separated overall. Meanwhile, as BuzzFeed reminds, it is still CBP policy to separate asylum-seeking children traveling with non-immediate relatives, like aunts or uncles.
  • The latest Metering Update from the University of Texas Strauss Center finds 18,700 names of asylum seekers waiting their turn to approach still-closed ports of entry in eight Mexican border cities—a 15 percent increase from February. The authors warn that border cities’ waitlists have become an inexact indicator of trends: many on the lists have since sought to cross between ports of entry, returned or been deported to their countries of origin, or moved elsewhere in Mexico, while new asylum seekers continue to arrive and don’t always sign on.
  • “Rather than attempting to drive down migration through more-stringent enforcement, Biden officials in recent weeks have been seeking to change the perception that high border numbers equate with a crisis, a failure, or even something manifestly negative,” reports Nick Miroff at the Washington Post.
  • January 23 was the date that Tamaulipas, Mexico stopped taking back expelled non-Mexican families with children under age 7, according to House Appropriations testimony from Todd Miller of CBP. After Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries, Miller revealed, the next six countries whose citizens Border Patrol is currently apprehending at the border are Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, and Nicaragua. More Brazilians are arriving “on the western flank” of the border.
  • On May 27 at 11am ET WOLA is hosting with a webinar with the  Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, La 72 Migrant Shelter, and the Jesuit Migration Network-Guatemala about the impact of migration enforcement policies in Mexico and Guatemala. You can register for the event here.

Colombia peace update: May 15, 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.

Nationwide protest updates

Violence trends

The security forces’ response to Colombia’s nationwide protests became less lethal over the past week. Three people involved in protests were killed in the 8 days between May 7 and 14, increasing the overall confirmed toll from 39 to 42, according to a database maintained by the non-governmental organizations Temblores and Indepaz.

Heavy, and often outraged, international scrutiny of the police and military response has likely contributed to restraint. So has a reduction in the protests’ overall intensity, as formal negotiations begin. While large turnouts continue in Bogotá, Medellín, and elsewhere, they are not consistently large every single day. Colombia’s southwest, though, remains very active, especially the cities of Cali, Valle del Cauca; Popayán, Cauca; Neiva, Huila; and Pasto, Nariño.

As of 11:30pm on May 12, Temblores had counted 39 killings committed by security forces; 1,055 “arbitrary detentions,” 442 “violent interventions in the framework of peaceful protests” including 133 uses of lethal firearms and 30 protesters suffering eye damage, and 16 cases of sexual violence.

Hundreds of people are still missing, with most probably in police custody. Sebastian Lanz, the co-director of Temblores, told Vice that some are being charged with crimes, but others “have ended up in unauthorized ‘clandestine’ detention centers where ‘there is no legal authority to verify the human rights situation there,’” or in “special centers for protection“ where people may be held without charges for up to 12 hours.

Geography of protest

Activity remains widespread geographically. On May 12, the protests’ two-week mark, the Defense Ministry’s “Unified Command Post” counted 170 protest activities in 391 of Colombia’s 1,123 municipalities (counties). That day, Defense Minister Diego Molano said that protesters continued to block 80 roads around the country.

In Cali early in the week, protesters maintained blockades stopping most road traffic in and out of the city. Some of these protesters were members of an Indigenous minga (“coming together”) that brought thousands from Cauca, to the south of Cali, to show solidarity with protesters in Colombia’s third-largest city. The blockades generated reports of shortages of goods in Cali, including gasoline, and an inability to get export cargo to Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port.

The Defense Ministry deployed 10,000 police and 2,100 soldiers to Cali. Most road blockades were lifted peacefully, but the military and police used heavy force in Siloé, a neighborhood in western Cali that has seen many casualties. On May 9, assailants in civilian clothes shot at indigenous protesters in broad daylight, wounding eight. The minga pulled back to Cauca on May 12, citing government plans for “an armed police and paramilitary attack against our delegations” if it stayed in Cali.

A road blockade in Buga, along the Pan-American Highway north of Cali, was the site of bitter, prolonged clashes between protesters and a combined police-military force on May 13. No deaths were reported. In fact, the Temblores and Indepaz database shows no new deaths in the Cali metropolitan area since May 7. Still, of the 42 fatalities on this list, 29 happened in Cali or the neighboring municipality of Yumbo.

In Cauca’s departmental capital of Popayán on May 12, police threw to the ground and sexually abused a 17-year-old girl who had been using her phone to record abuse during a protest. The girl was taken to an “Immediate Reaction Unit” (URI)—a facility of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía)—where she reported what was done to her. After being freed hours later, the girl reportedly took her own life. Popayán human rights lawyer Lizeth Montero said that a total of three underage girls denounced sexual abuse at the hands of police on May 12.

News of the abuse spurred angry protests in Popayán on May 14, during which some protesters burned down the URI where the girl had been taken. During the police response, an ESMAD anti-riot policeman fired a projectile, possibly a tear-gas canister, into the neck of 22-year-old college student Sebastián Quintero Múnera, killing him.

Rural areas appear to be joining the protests in increasing numbers. About 5,000 coca-growers from rural Cauca converged on Popayán to demand that the government comply with peace accord commitments to assist with the transition to licit crops, and that the government abandon plans to restart a program to eradicate coca by fumigating fields with herbicides from aircraft.

Casualties

Lucas Villa, a 37-year-old activist who was known for his ebullient nature—he appeared often in videos dancing during protests—died in a hospital in Pereira, Risaralda, on May 10. A gunman on a motorcycle hit Villa with eight bullets during a peaceful protest in Pereira on May 5.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking aggravated homicide charges against a Cali motorcycle police officer who, in a much-shared April 28 video, repeatedly shot and killed a 17-year-old who had run up and kicked him. This is the fourth case of a protest-related fatality for which the Fiscalía has filed charges. On May 12 Prosecutor General Francisco Barbosa told Colombia’s House of Representatives that the Fiscalía had counted 14 homicides so far; by that date Temblores and Indepaz had confirmed 41, including 1 policeman.

Investigations haven’t moved in the case of Maycolt Stiven Florido, a Bogotá barber attacked April 30, on video, by 12 police who accused him wrongly of throwing stones. The police knocked out three of Florido’s teeth, among other injuries, while stealing the equivalent of US$135 and his mobile phone.

Negotiations are getting underway

President Duque met on May 10 with the Comité del Paro, the group of mostly union leaders that called for the initial April 28 protests. The three hour exploratory meeting yielded little other than a government announcement that it is willing to open a process of negotiations with the Comité, managed on the government side by High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos.

President Duque announced on May 11 that the government would pay tuition for public university students who come from the bottom three levels of the government’s six-layer income system. The measure would waive tuition for 97 percent of students in public universities.

On May 14 the Comité del Paro, after a long meeting with mediators from the UN and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference, agreed to the negotiations framework proposed by the government, and the first round of talks is to occur on May 16.

“If the National Government thinks that this process will be managed under the same scheme of the ‘great national conversation’ of late 2019 [after November 2019 protests], consisting of listening, taking notes, and then sitting in front of a computer to see what can be accommodated in the government’s plan and then coming out with what seems feasible, this new dialogue won’t calm things down either,” warned an El Espectador editorial.

An El Tiempo analysis outlines some of the points that a dialogue between the government and protest leaders would be likely to cover. They include basic income guarantees; affordable college education; reopening of schools closed by the pandemic; suspending forced coca eradication, especially fumigation; ending gender, ethnic, and sexual-orientation discrimination; withdrawing a controversial health care reform; and more participation in the national Covid vaccination plan.

La Silla Vacía profiles the 20 members of the Comité del Paro, finding the group to be overwhelmingly male and representative mainly of workers in the formal economy. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), organizers of the “minga” (coming together) that brought thousands of its members to Cali, issued a statement declaring that it does not feel represented by the Comité del Paro.

134 environmental groups signed a statement supporting the protests. They added a list of demands including securing communities’ prior and informed consent, opposing large extractive projects, and opposing coca eradication with the herbicide glyphosate.

Political fallout

Foreign Minister Claudia Blum resigned after 18 months in office, amid a steady drumbeat of international communications voicing concern about the severity of the government’s response to protests. “The country will reject external pronouncements that do not reflect objectivity and seek to fuel polarization in the country,” Blum had said a week earlier. The comment was not well received. Blum was the second cabinet minister to quit since the protests began. Alberto Carrasquilla, the author of the proposed tax hike that first detonated the protests, resigned as finance minister on May 3.

A Datexco telephone poll of 700 adults found 75 percent in favor of the national strike, 15 percent against, and 10 percent with no opinion. 82 percent disapproved of the government’s management of the situation.

President Duque told the New York Times “he did not believe the police department needed significant reform. He said that the police have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward abuse, and pointed to the fact that the police inspector general has opened at least 65 investigations into alleged misconduct.”

Conspiracy hypotheses

National Police Commander Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas is among authorities who insist that the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, along with both of Colombia’s principal networks of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident bands, are behind disturbances. While members of these groups may be taking advantage of disorder to pursue drug trafficking and other criminality, sources in the security forces tell El Espectador that evidence does not point to them playing a leading or coordinating role.

“What we are seeing here,” Gen. Vargas told El Tiempo’s María Isabel Rueda, “is a systematic attack against the police. This has happened in Chile and in other countries around the world, including the United States. There are organized systematic attacks, platforms in foreign countries, with a lot of false news and disinformation, that want to attack the Police for its role in crime containment, not public and peaceful demonstration.” He added, “In the ELN’s computers, in those of the FARC dissidents, we have found intentions to systematically attack the credibility of the police.”

Former president Álvaro Uribe, the maximum leader of President Iván Duque’s Centro Democrático party, called on May 13 for a greater military role in maintaining order during the protests, during an address before Colombia’s House of Representatives. Uribe warned that people exercising their right to “legitimate defense” might begin “the organization of private justice, with all its cruelty and the deinstitutionalization that the country had overcome.”

El Espectador recounted leaked audio of a Google Meet conversation between legislators from the governing Centro Democrático party and business leaders from Pereira, Risaralda. The CD legislators rejected any negotiation with groups carrying out road blockages and suggested boycotting advertising for all media outlets whose reporting has been unfavorable to the government and the security forces.

Business-sector representatives on this call recalled the “dissipated molecular revolution” thesis, popularized by a Nazi-sympathizing Chilean polemicist and advanced by former president Uribe, which contends that even peaceful protest is part of a dispersed, transnational leftist plot to overthrow the government. “They are looking to take over a government and I feel that businessmen have remained quiet on this issue. We need to support the institutional framework, because they have taken advantage of us, light years, in letting the outside world know what is happening in Colombia.”

Economics

Of the 11 million Colombians between ages 14 and 28, 3 million (27 percent) are neither employed nor in school. These “ni-nis” are heavily represented in the ongoing protests.

The Ministry of Finance said that the protests are costing the economy about half a trillion pesos (US$135 million) per day.

Comments and analyses

55 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the State Department to more forcefully denounce police brutality in Colombia, to freeze police aid and sales of crowd control equipment, and to promote dialogue.

The leads of the Colombian government’s negotiating team during the 2012-16 peace process with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo, published a series of 10 recommendations in El Tiempo outlining how dialogue might go forward, suggesting a big role for young members of Congress and the use of mechanisms envisioned in the peace accord. “If we were able to reach an agreement between the government and the FARC, our institutions can do the same with the citizenry. But this requires, in addition to political will and respect for the other side, methods to reach agreements and guarantees for the participants.”

“One way to move forward is to stop thinking about the peace agreement in terms of concessions made to the much-disliked former FARC combatants,” reads an Americas Quarterly analysis from former finance minister Mauricio Cárdenas. “The peace agreement is about building a new social contract, where marginalized groups will have more political representation while bringing the state in, in the form of roads and schools, to some parts of Colombia for the first time in our history.”

“By helping Colombia move toward dialogue,” WOLA’s Adam Isacson writes in a May 12 New York Times column, “the Biden administration would be developing a template for engaging with counterparts throughout Latin America, where several countries battered by the virus are confronting authoritarian populism amid stark social divides.”

In a May 13 WOLA podcast, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli explains why she’s optimistic that ongoing protests “can allow for more diverse voices to take up leadership in the country” and why she rates the US government’s response so far as “3 or 4 out of 10.”

Government acknowledges outreach efforts to the ELN

The Duque government’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, announced that the government has approved or participated in 32 meetings over the past 17 months “to verify the ELN’s true will to seek peace.” Outreach, Ceballos said, has included 22 meetings with intermediaries in the Vatican Nunciature in Bogotá, 6 meetings with intermediaries in the presidential palace, often with President Duque’s participation, and 4 trips to Havana, at which Catholic Church and UN representatives spoke to ELN leaders. The OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA) also took part in some of the meetings.

A few top ELN leaders remain in Cuba after a January 2019 bombing at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá brought an end to an earlier peace process. Though protocols for the end of those talks called for their low-profile return to Colombia, the Duque government refused to allow that and demanded their extradition. In the meantime, the ELN ex-negotiators remain in Cuba and available for exploratory talks.

The first Cuba “good offices” trip took place in February 2020, when Father Darío Echeverri, who for years has played an important go-between role in peace efforts, traveled to Havana in representation of the Vatican. Echeverri was accompanied by Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. Subsequent meetings in Cuba took place in September and November 2020 and March 2021.

At the time, the Duque government, with Ceballos playing the most vocal role, was ramping up diplomatic pressure on Cuba to extradite the ELN leaders stranded on the island. This week Pablo Beltrán, a top ELN leader and former negotiator who is among those still in Havana, told El Tiempo that Colombia’s government has been a reluctant participant in the exploratory talks, giving most credit to the Church and the international community.

FARC dissidents still fighting Venezuelan forces, and each other, in Apure, Venezuela

Venezuelan officials say that 16 soldiers and at least 9 FARC dissident fighters have been killed since fighting broke out March 21 across the border from Arauca, Colombia, in the Venezuelan state of Apure. Sporadic fighting continues on Venezuelan soil between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group, which announced this week that it is holding about eight Venezuelan soldiers captive. Though information is spotty, an NGO reports that fighting is also now occurring in Venezuela between the two FARC dissident groups active in the zone.

The panorama in Apure is confusing. In addition to the ELN guerrillas, which are very present but appear uninvolved in the current combat, are “dissidents” led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the FARC peace process. Their rank-and-file includes many new recruits with no FARC background.

The dissidents are affiliated with two national networks. The first, the 10th Front, is part of the “1st Front” structure headed by alias Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized. The Gentil Duarte network is the largest FARC dissident organization in the country. The second is the “Segunda Marquetalia” (Marquetalia is the site of the 1964 army attack that led to the FARC’s origin), headed by alias Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana and destined for a Senate seat. Márquez rearmed, along with several other hardline FARC members, in 2019.

Numerous analysts cited in past updates have alleged that the Venezuelan regime is targeting the 10th Front—for unclear reasons—and favoring the Segunda Marquetalia.

The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported on May 8 that 10 Venezuelan soldiers had gone missing in Apure following combat with the 10th Front. On May 11 the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that it had received a communication from the 10th Front indicating that it was holding eight Venezuelan soldiers who had been captured during fighting on April 23, and was looking for a way to hand them over. Tarazona posted this letter to his Twitter account, as well as proof-of-life video of some of the captives.

“In addition to a military defeat on April 23, the government today has [suffered] a communications defeat due to its determination to manage the situation in Apure without transparency before the families of the military and the country,” tweeted Marino Alvarado of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea. “Maduro, [Minister of Defense Gen.] Vladimir Padrino, and Adm. Remigio Ceballos [strategic operational commander of the armed forces] owe the country an explanation. A serious minister in the face of such a military and communications disaster would resign.”

FundaRedes also reported that 10th Front and Segunda Marquetalia fighters engaged in combat on May 12 in the town of Bruzual, more than 100 miles inside Venezuelan territory in northwestern Apure. Fundaredes claims that the fighting killed four and wounded several others. Combat between the 10th Front and Segunda Marquetalia has been rare in both Colombia and Venezuela, but appears to be growing more frequent.

Links

  • Citing a failure to provide prior advance consultation, a court in Nariño suspended all forced coca eradication in Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities’ lands in Tumaco and nine other municipalities along Nariño’s Pacific coast. (Tumaco was sixth among Colombia’s largest coca-producing municipalities in 2019.) The ruling prohibits the on-the-ground manual forced eradication that security forces and eradicators have been carrying out. Colombia’s Constitutional Court will soon rule on two other legal challenges (tutelas) to the Duque government’s imminent restart of glyphosate fumigation from aircraft. Those challenges, too, argue insufficient consultation with ethnic communities.
  • On May 11 the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution adding to the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. The Mission is now charged also with verifying the sentences handed down by the transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP). These sentences, up to eight years in duration, are likely to be “restrictions of rights and liberties” and/or “works and tasks with restorative and restorative content,” referred by the Spanish acronym TOAR. The Security Council resolution came several days after seven top FARC leaders took the historic step of pleading guilty to the JEP’s charges of masterminding thousands of kidnappings.
  • In testimony before the JEP, retired Army captain Adolfo Guevara told how he collaborated with the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network’s Northern Bloc while serving in active duty in 2002. “He not only narrated how he executed people to ‘legalize’ them as ‘positives’ in the Gaula [anti-kidnapping unit in] Magdalena in 2002,” El Tiempo reports, “but also assured that his actions were known and required by other military units.” Guevara alleged that Gen. Mario Montoya, who went on to head Colombia’s army in the mid-2000s, collaborated with the paramilitaries.
  • Colombia’s navy reported seizing nine semi-submersible drug trafficking vessels along its coasts and waters so far this year.
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