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Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #51

Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #51
By Weekly adamisacson.com • Issue #51 • View online
You have to look for it amid the bleakness, but there are some green shoots of good news out there. The pending availability of vaccines and plummeting new COVID case data, at least in the United States, are big ones.
So is the gradually expanding entry into the United States of asylum-seeking families whom the Trump administration had immiserated, forcing them to “Remain in Mexico” to await their U.S. hearings since 2019. I love seeing video and photos of joyful, tearful families being permitted to come across, boarding buses to be reunited with relatives and to pursue their asylum cases in safety.
So is news of the first meeting between a U.S. ambassador to Colombia and the president of Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system—a big show of support for a tribunal that’s under relentless attack even as it makes strides toward holding guerrilla and military human rights abusers accountable.
Most of the news is still alarming, as the Colombia and border updates down below make clear. But it’s still nice to exercise the “celebrate something good that happened” muscles a bit. They’re badly atrophied.
Here are the usual updates: weekly Colombia and border overviews, 5 “longread” articles or reports I recommend, some upcoming events this week, and some tweets that made me laugh. Welcome to March. Let’s have a good month.

Colombia peace update: February 27, 2021
Annual UN human rights report
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has maintained an office in Colombia since 1996 with presences in Bogotá and nine regions. Early each year, it produces a report summarizing Colombia’s human rights situation during the prior year. The Colombia office issued its latest report on February 23. Among its topline findings for 2020:
  • Colombia suffered 76 massacres, defined as “three or more persons executed in a single incident or during incidents related by responsibility, place and time,” involving 292 deaths. “The number of massacres has grown constantly since 2018, with 2020 recording the highest number since 2014.”
  • 73 demobilized ex-FARC members were killed, amounting to a year-end total of 248 since the peace accord’s November 2016 signing (which has since risen to 259).
  • The UN office received allegations about 42 cases of government security forces arbitrarily killing a total of 73 people. While most involved police, 11 cases “occurred when the military were participating in prevention and law enforcement activities, executing arrest and search warrants, or engaged in the eradication of illicit crops and the fight against criminal groups.”
The UN High Commissioner counted up to 133 killings of human rights defenders, though as of publication it had been able to verify only 50 due to pandemic restrictions. “Of the verified cases, 25 per cent were reportedly committed by criminal groups, 15 per cent by FARC dissident groups, 13 per cent by ELN, and 4 per cent by the police or military.” Colombian authorities achieved 20 convictions in 2020 against killers of human rights defenders.
The day before the UN report launched, the Colombian presidency issued its own brief report. Presidential Human Rights Advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez claimed that the government and the UN human rights office had counted 66 murdered social leaders, with 63 remaining to be verified. The reason for the discrepancy with the UN is unclear.
The UN and government estimates are on the low end. The government’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoríacounted 182 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2020, and 753 in the five years since 2016. The non-governmental Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (Indepaz), which includes names and places but does not verify each case, counted 310 murders.
The UN report faults the Colombian government for the continued lack of a stated public policy for dismantling paramilitary successor criminal organizations, as foreseen in the 2016 peace accord. It finds a “lack of a comprehensive State presence” in conflictive parts of the country, which “limits the State ́s capacity to comply with its duty to protect the population.” Juliette De Rivero, the director of the High Commissioner’s Colombia office, told Verdad Abierta, “After the accords’ signing, there was about a year and a half of breathing space in these territories. But then the State didn’t occupy the space—and armed groups began to arrive and exert very strong social control.”
The UN report, as well as press comments by De Rivero and High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, voiced strong support for Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system. They especially upheld its Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which has taken bold moves in recent weeks against ex-guerrilla kidnappers and military personnel responsible for “false positive” killings, and which often finds itself under political fire from allies of President Iván Duque’s government. Bachelet shared her concern about “declarations against the transitional justice system, including legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”
U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg met with the JEP’s President, Eduardo Cifuentes, on February 26. This was a notable show of support for an institution that some U.S. officials over the years had avoided praising, out of concern that it might end up failing to punish perpetrators.
JEP to investigate pressure on military “false positives” witnesses
As reported in last week’s update, the JEP surprised the country by announcing that it is investigating a much higher than anticipated number of military murders of civilians who were then falsely presented as combat kills. The Special Jurisdiction said its review of existing databases led it to estimate 6,402 of these “false positive” killings between 2002 and 2008 alone.
As an analysis by La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León shows, that number could increase or decrease as the transitional justice system proceeds with its “bottom up” strategy of starting with the perpetrators in order to arrive at the most responsible military commanders. Cifuentes, the JEP’s president, told El Espectador that the next steps involve collecting more testimonies from perpetrators and victims in order “to charge those identified as most responsible.”
This has some top current and former military commanders concerned. Articles last week in El Espectador and Verdad Abierta name some of the officers most frequently cited for commanding units that committed the most “false positive” killings. These include several generals who were promoted to lead Colombia’s army in the 2000s and 2010s.
The JEP’s method of starting with lower-ranking military perpetrators in order to arrive at the top commanders puts significant pressure on those lower-ranking defendants, who make up most of the 1,860 security-force members who agreed to have their cases heard in the JEP. Nineteen of them had reported being threatened or followed, according to a September 2020 document from the government’s Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
On February 2, the JEP sent a letter to the Specialized Technical Defense Fund for Members of the Security Forces (FONDETEC), a sort of public defender service for members of the military and police accused of crimes. The letter asks for information about the advice that FONDETEC lawyers may be providing to low-ranking military defendants in the JEP system.
Some of these defendants have alleged that their public defenders strongly encouraged them to avoid implicating senior commanders in their JEP testimonies. “The pretext that the lawyers have is to carry out preparation sessions for those appearing before the transitional justice mechanism,” explained Sergio Arboleda Góngora of the Corporación Jurídica Libertad human rights group. “They would use that opportunity to indicate what to say and what not to say to the lower-ranking members of the military when they testify.”
“FONDETEC conditions our testimonies to improve the defense of those above us,” a military witness told the JEP, according to El Espectador investigative columnist Yohir Akerman. “What evidence do you have to link General [Mario] Montoya, commander of the Army? The situation could turn around against you,” a FONDETEC lawyer called “Doctor Vargas” apparently told defendants at the military’s detention center in Facatativá, Cundinamarca. Akerman identifies him as Fernando Antonio Vargas Quemba, a FONDETEC attorney with ties to far-right, even paramilitary-linked, groups.
Colombia’s politically powerful associations of retired military and police officers issued a communiqué opposing the JEP’s information request regarding FONDETEC activities, viewing it as part of an “unprecedented offensive against our military and police, with the purpose of demoralizing and discrediting those who selflessly serve the country.”
The commander of the Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, appeared to go further. The day after the JEP’s revelation of its estimate of 6,402 murders, the general posted to his Twitter account nature footage depicting snakes, interspersed with Bible excerpts, and a vow that “we will not let ourselves be defeated by poisonous and perverse vipers that want to attack us, accuse us, or weaken us.”
“How frightening that these gentlemen are still there [in command]. We are not poisonous snakes. We are victims of the Army,” responded the Association of Mothers of False Positives. A La Silla Vacía analysis, noting Gen. Zapateiro’s “impulsive” nature, observed that the commander is under pressure from the hardline retired officers’ associations. An unnamed “high government official who works with the Army” insisted that the General’s position is not the Army’s institutional stance.
New military command to fight armed groups and organized crime
On February 26 President Duque visited the Tolemaida base in Tolima to inaugurate a new Colombian Army Command against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats (CONAT). This 7,000-person unit’s objective will be “breaking, striking, and subduing the structures of drug trafficking and transnational threats, linked to the illegal exploitation of minerals, trafficking of species and people, and, of course, any transnational form of terrorism,” reads a Presidency release.
The CONAT’s commander is Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, a former commander of the Colombian Army’s National Training Center who served a recent tour in Miami as the commander of the U.S. Southern Command’s J7/9 Exercise and Coalition directorate.
It is not immediately clear how much about the CONAT is new, other than its command and organizational structure. Colombia’s Army already had Counter-Drug Brigades; these are now being combined under the CONAT with a counter-illicit mining brigade and aviation units. Reporting about the unit doesn’t specifically speak about new capabilities, equipment, or personnel increases.
Defense Minister Diego Molano said the new command will prioritize “areas identified as being highly influenced by drug trafficking such as Catatumbo, Cauca, and Putumayo.” Catatumbo is along the Venezuelan border, which drew the notice of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In response to an earlier announcement by President Duque about the CONAT, Maduro had called on Venezuela’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need.”
Caracol Noticias report by noted investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón—who was part of an unfortunate recent exodus from Semana magazine—cited videos and emails indicating an ever closer relationship between Venezuelan security forces and members of the ELN and FARC dissident groups on Venezuelan soil. “Today we are in full support of the commander, comrade Nicolás Maduro, so that this government may continue, so that he may continue to lead this ship,” a video depicts “Julián Chollo,” a commander in the dissident group headed by former FARC leader “Gentil Duarte,” telling residents of the town of Elorza, deep within Apure, Venezuela. The Caracol report finds, “According to internal ELN communications, Venezuela may have become the scene of a ‘war among guerrillas’ in which each side has the support of different [Venezuelan] military units.”
Links
  • new report from the International Crisis Group questions the Duque government’s contentions that the coca crop lies at the root of Colombia’s violence challenges, and that forced eradication can bring peace. Looking into the origins and current reality of the country’s coca economy and attempts to attack it, the report concludes that “an approach based on forceful eradication of coca, which the U.S. has stoutly backed, tends to worsen rural violence, while failing to reduce drug supply.” WOLA will be co-hosting an online event with this report’s principal authors on March 5.
  • Meanwhile, El Tiempo offered some geographic intel on manual eradication: “Operations…have been concentrated mainly in the Zonas Futuro of Pacific Nariño, Bajo Cauca and Sur de Córdoba, Catatumbo, and Putumayo.” Citing the Colombian Presidency, it reported that forces manually eradicated 4,574 hectares of coca in January—more than January 2020 but behind pace to match 2020’s total of 130,171 hectares eradicated.
  • The Financial Times published an in-depth look at Colombia’s efforts to eradicate coca, and the probably imminent restart of an aerial herbicide spraying program that was suspended, due to public health concerns, in 2015. RCN Noticias reported on efforts to renew fumigation, pending fulfillment of requirements set out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court: “Eight modern planes with two teams of 16 pilots” are ready “to start spraying, a task that awaits ‘D-day’ to start the mission,” adding that “canisters full of glyphosate [herbicide] are already in special hangars,” and that “Guaviare is where aerial spraying will start again.”
  • At least eight, or at least eleven, people were massacred over the February 20-21 weekend in Tumaco, Nariño near the Ecuador border. The perpetrators are believed to be “Los Contadores,” one of several criminal and guerrilla dissent groups operating in this zone of heavy coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.
  • video from the town of Siberia, Orito, Putumayo shows heavily armed members of the “Comandos de la Frontera” paramilitary group entering a bar and announcing their intention to kill “people who commit vice (viciosos), drug addicts, and thieves.” An early warning document from the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría) calls the group a “mutation” of an earlier group active in Putumayo, the “Sinaloa Mafia,” that can trace its command DNA back to the old AUC paramilitaries.
  • After recording three ELN “offensive actions” in each of three consecutive months, the think-tank CERAC, which maintains a detailed conflict database, counted nine ELN offensive actions in January. A February 23 ELN attack killed two soldiers and wounded 11 in Tibú, near the Venezuela border in Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region.
  • Retired Gen. Eduardo Herrera Berbel, who participated in past peace talks with the ELN, told Semana that in his view, talks can only restart if the ELN agrees to cease kidnapping and other criminal behavior as a precondition. Citing past peace talks’ signed protocols, Herrera disagrees with the Duque government’s pressure on Cuba to extradite ELN negotiators who have been on the island since a January 2019 Bogotá bombing forced an end to talks.
  • La Silla Vacía looks into “Operación Artemisa,” the Colombian armed forces’ ongoing (though not constant) effort to combat deforestation in environmentally fragile areas. It finds that many in the military are unhappy about taking on this non-combat role: “You don’t use special forces to stop a peasant with a chainsaw.”
  • President Duque and other leading government officials participated in a nearly 6-hour video discussion on February 24, in which they made the case that the current administration is implementing the peace accord. They sought to respond to, as they put it, “those who seek to ignore the progress achieved and promote a hateful division between supposed friends and enemies of peace.”
  • “Colombia has an absolutely obscene concentration of land and it is a concentration of land that is rarely spoken of. Not only is it socially unjust, but it is also a tombstone on the country’s development possibilities. No country with the agrarian structure that Colombia has has emerged from underdevelopment. It is as simple as that.” — Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, director of the National University’s Lands Observatory, in an unusually thorough Caracol analysis of land tenure in Colombia.
Weekly Border Update: February 26, 2021
Unaccompanied child arrivals, influx center feed both “surge” and “kids in cages” narratives
While we try to keep these updates brief, this topic has to start with several bullets of context, which has been absent from some recent media coverage, feeding misunderstandings about unaccompanied children currently arriving at the border. If you’re familiar with the context, skip past these bullets.
  • By law, children from non-contiguous countries (neither Canada nor Mexico) who are apprehended without adult accompaniment at the border are not deported immediately. They are placed into asylum proceedings. This is meant to be a protection against child trafficking. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires that after apprehending an underage migrant from a non-contiguous country who arrives unaccompanied, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has 72 hours to transfer that child to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services). ORR maintains a network of shelters for unaccompanied minors from other countries.
  • The 72-hour handoff from CBP to ORR custody is important. CBP’s holding facilities for apprehended migrants—mainly, Border Patrol stations—are designed to hold single adults for a few hours.
  • ORR’s shelters are not “kids in cages.” Under normal circumstances, they are state-licensed childcare facilitiesrun by contractors, where kids stay while awaiting placement with relatives or sponsors. An exception, discussed below, are temporary “influx” facilities thrown together when child arrivals increase, where conditions may be more austere.
  • ORR must seek to place children in its shelters with family members or sponsors in the United States to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. This process can take days or weeks. It involves background checks of the relatives or sponsors who come to pick them up, in order to avoid inadvertently handing children over to human traffickers. Often, the relatives who take custody are undocumented. For a time during the Trump administration, ORR was sharing information about these relatives with ICE, which made them reluctant to appear and take children, causing ORR’s shelter population to balloon. The Trump administration ultimately had to back off that policy.
  • Unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, arrived at the border in large numbers during mid-2014, mid-2015, late 2016, and between mid-2018 and mid-2019. These increases in unaccompanied child migration tended to correspond with increases in family (parent and child) migration. 
  • When COVID-19 border measures went into place in March 2020, the Trump administration began expelling unaccompanied children as quickly as possible, along with nearly all other apprehended migrants, including would-be asylum seekers. As a pretext for overriding the 2008 Wilberforce anti-trafficking law, it cited an obscure public health quarantine provision in Title 42 of the U.S. code. While Mexico agreed to take expelled adults and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, it did not agree to receive non-Mexican unaccompanied children, whom ICE expelled via aircraft back to their home countries. (Nonetheless, and horrifyingly, the New York Times revealed in October 2020 that CBP had indeed expelled some Central American children, alone, into Mexico.)
  • In November 2020, a U.S. district judge blocked the Trump administration from expelling unaccompanied children apprehended at the border. CBP resumed placing them in ORR shelters, which were close to empty at the time.
  • Joe Biden was inaugurated in January, but his administration has not revoked the Title 42 expulsions policy: would-be asylum seekers are still being expelled. Officials say they need time to build up the necessary infrastructure to process asylum seekers during a pandemic, since the Trump administration left little capacity behind.
  • Shortly after inauguration, an appeals court panel of three Trump-appointed judges overruled the November 2020 block on expelling unaccompanied minors. The new Biden administration, however, refused to resume expelling apprehended children—even as it continues to expel adults, and adult parents with children.
Before the pandemic, Border Patrol was apprehending roughly 3,000 unaccompanied children each month. That dropped sharply after March 2020, when borders closed throughout the Americas. Numbers of apprehended children steadily increased through 2020, though, reaching the pre-pandemic level of 3,000 in August, surpassing 4,000 in October, and reaching 5,707 in January 2021. The pace is increasing: during the week of February 14-20, CBS News reports, Border Patrol apprehended “more than 1,500 migrant children” and “on Sunday [February 21], an additional 300 minors were taken into custody.”
The increase owes in part to the Trump expulsions policy causing “a backlog of minors waiting to seek asylum,” as CBS News put it, citing a shelter official who noted that “it created a bubble that is bursting because now they can get in.” It also owes to parents stuck in Mexican border cities making a heartbreaking choice: attempt to cross the border with children and be expelled, wait indefinitely in Mexico, or send their children across alone, where they might be apprehended and reunited with relatives in the United States.
The increase in unaccompanied child arrivals has caused the ORR shelter population to grow rapidly: the count on February 22, according to CBS, was 7,100. That leaves “fewer than 900 empty beds” because COVID-19 measures have compelled ORR to reduce its 13,200-bed capacity to 8,000. This comes with an increase in the population of children in Border Patrol’s holding cells, where they can legally be for no longer than 72 hours: “roughly 750” as of February 19. In January, 179 children exceeded the 72-hour limit because of capacity issues.
With only five weeks in office, the Biden administration has recurred to a controversial measure: temporary “influx facilities” to handle the overflow of unaccompanied children. ORR has set up a 66-acre, 700-child capacity tent facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to hold children aged 13 to 17. The agency’s stated goal is that children at the facility, managed by nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, stay there no longer than about 30 days, following two weeks of quarantine at other ORR shelters.
As they sit on federally owned land, influx facilities like Carrizo, and a possible second site south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, are not subject to state licensing like other ORR child shelters. During the Trump administration, the Homestead site, run by a for-profit corporation with former Homeland Security secretary John Kelly on its board, came under heavy fire for living conditions, cost, and lack of transparency, as did a tent facility in Tornillo, Texas. While access to these remotely located sites is restricted in the name of protecting children from traffickers, the lack of visibility over what happens inside worries child advocates.
Some Democrats, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezJulián Castro, and Jamaal Bowman, were quick to criticize the Carrizo Springs shelter’s opening. “We should not go in this direction again,” Castro tweeted. “HHS-ORR should place these children in a home more quickly. Invest in personnel and policy to speed up placement. It’s safer, cheaper, and is in the children’s best interest.” Social media commentators on the left invoked a return to “kids in cages,” while some even conflated it with the Trump administration’s family separations.
On the right, commentators—also reviving the “kids in cages” slogan—claimed that the Biden administration’s use of an austere facility to house increased numbers of unaccompanied children vindicated the Trump approach of rapidly expelling them. Former Trump advisor Stephen Miller is urging members of Congress and conservative media to seize on a “Biden migrant surge” narrative to mobilize voters against Biden’s immigration reform legislation, and against Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterm legislative elections.
“It’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19,” White House Press Secretary Psaki said of the Carrizo Springs facility, adding, “This is not kids being kept in cages.” While certainly not “cages,” it is hard to argue that tent and shipping-container sites like Carrizo Springs are in children’s best interest. While recognizing that the Biden administration has not had time to develop a new approach—it hasn’t even nominated a CBP commissioner yet—advocacy groups are urging a quick phaseout of unlicensed “influx” shelters.
“Remain in Mexico” starts winding down
The Biden administration’s dismantling of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy became reality on February 19, as 25 asylum-seeking migrants who had been awaiting their U.S. immigration court date since 2019 crossed from Tijuana, Mexico, into San Diego County. (“Remain in Mexico,” also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP, was a Trump initiative that forced about 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil.)
The process at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry “was orderly, safe and efficient,” read a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement. “After CBP and ICE processing was complete, facilitating organizations helped coordinate travel arrangements as needed.” On February 22, another 25 asylum seekers entered at San Ysidro. The goal is to increase the number who can be processed to about 200-300 per day.
In Mexico, the entry process for Remain in Mexico subjects takes place with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other international and non-governmental organizations. Those with active MPP cases register at a website that went live on February 19; despite initial hiccups, 12,000 people signed up within the site’s first three days. The next step is COVID-19 testing performed by IOM while UNICEF ensures “humane treatment of children and their families,” a UNHCR release reads. “So far, no cases of COVID-19 have been detected,” the UN reported on February 25.
At the other end of the border, the Remain in Mexico wind-down began on February 25 between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. Twenty-seven people crossed the Gateway International Bridge and were taken to the bus station to move on to destinations where most have relatives. “Smiles hidden under face masks were hard to see, but undeniably present” on their faces, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported. “For me it was an affirmation, it was a triumph of life, of humanity,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who for years has run a respite center for released migrants in McAllen.
Most of the first to arrive from Matamoros will be residents of a notorious tent camp where about 750 Remain in Mexico subjects have been forced to live since 2019. The expectation is to increase daily arrivals at Brownsville to about 200 per day, including many asylum seekers in Matamoros—a dangerous longtime stronghold of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel—who did not stay in the encampment.
As we write this on February 26, we’re hearing that 25 Remain in Mexico subjects were just allowed to cross from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso.
GAO reports on U.S. military border deployment
The Defense Department has spent about a billion dollars since 2018 to support the Trump administration’s National Guard and active-duty military deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on February 23. The 90-page document, submitted in response to a request from Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Judiciary committees, contains much previously undisclosed information about the military mission.
In April 2018, in response to media reports of a “migrant caravan” making its way through Mexico, Donald Trump ordered National Guard troops to the border. It was the fourth time since 2002 that a president had ordered the National Guard to support CBP. In October of that year, as a new caravan formed in the runup to midterm legislative elections, Trump augmented that with a highly unusual deployment of active-duty army and marine personnel, a rarity on U.S. soil. At its height in November 2018, up to 2,579 National Guardsmen and 5,815 active-duty troops were involved.
About 3,600 active-duty troops remain available to support CBP, though many may be physically located at bases elsewhere in the United States. The mission is to extend at least through the fiscal year’s end on September 30, 2021. While the GAO report notes that DHS expects to continue requesting support from the Defense Department for three to five years, it’s not yet clear whether that will happen under the Biden administration.
Among the report’s notable findings:
  • The Defense Department obligated at least $841 million between April 2018 and May 2020, and a table elsewhere in the report cites a figure of $1.001 billion. This is significantly more than what had been previously reported to Congress.
  • Some of that reporting to Congress has been very late, and the Defense Department never even turned in a required report on expenditures for fiscal 2019, which was due on March 31, 2020.
  • The Defense Department failed to reckon with the deployments’ potential costs, and with their effects on military readiness.
  • The Defense Department received 33 different assistance and extension requests from DHS between April 2018 and March 2020.
  • Missions included air support (helicopters), basic reconnaissance, construction of items like concertina wire along the border wall, detention support at holding facilities, logistical support, and driving and maintaining vehicles.
  • DHS sought to have active-duty military personnel in roles that would involve direct contact with foreign nationals. The Defense Department resisted that, and such duties fell to National Guard personnel. 
The report seems to indicate that the Defense Department regarded the border mission as a lower-priority role and a drag on readiness for higher-priority military missions. Commanders, as Stars and Stripes summarizes it, “shared experiences of missed training and the strain of rotating troops to the border every 30 days.” In a response to GAO, the Department sought to avoid recommending policy changes that would “create an impression that DOD has a border security mission.”
Links
  • 61 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to end Title 42 expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants.
  • #WeCanWelcome Asylum Seekers is a new campaign from Refugees International, with a petition to the Biden administration, videos, a social media “toolkit,” and other informational resources about the United States’ “responsibility to welcome people seeking protection from persecution.”
  • An eight-year-old Honduran boy and a Venezuelan woman drowned trying to swim across a frigid Rio Grande between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas on February 17. The boy’s parents and sister apparently made it across, only to be expelled back to Mexico.
  • Investigative journalist Alberto Pradilla revealed at Mexico’s Animal Político that the Mexican government’s “Fondo México,” ostensibly established to fund social programs in Central America to address migration’s root causes, has ended up paying only for the detention of migrants inside Mexico, and for buses to bring them back to Central America.
  • The Central American Commission of Migration Directors (OCAM), made up of authorities from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua, agreed on a vaguely worded three-point “action plan” to halt flows of extra-continental migrants (Haitians, Cubans, Asians, Africans) stranded in South America.
  • Attorneys are still working to locate the deported parents of 506 children who were separated during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. This represents progress: the number was 611 a month ago, CNN reports.
  • Vice tells the story of 49-year-old Guatemalan migrant Édgar López, who had lived and worked for 22 years, and had a wife and kids, in Carthage, Mississippi—the town where ICE carried out a massive raid of chicken-plant workers in 2019. He was deported back to Guatemala. Édgar López’s effort to be reunited with his family ended on January 22, when he was one of 19 migrants massacred in northern Mexico, not far from the border, apparently by an elite Mexican state police unit.
  • A 4th Circuit federal appeals judge has delayed the deportation of a former MS-13 gang member to El Salvador, ruling that former gang membership counts as a distinct social group, potentially eligible for asylum. 
  • The Biden administration announced that it is instructing ICE agents to prioritize for arrest “those suspected of being a national security threat, recent border crossers, and those who are considered a public safety threat,” and to seek pre-approval from local superiors before arresting people who don’t fit those priorities.
5 links from the past week
  • new report from the International Crisis Group questions the Colombian government’s contentions that the coca crop is a root cause of violence, and that forced eradication might bring peace. It concludes that “an approach based on forceful eradication of coca, which the U.S. has stoutly backed, tends to worsen rural violence, while failing to reduce drug supply.” See also a Financial Times longread about the push to restart coca eradication via aerial herbicide fumigation.
  • A 90-page U.S. Government Accountability Office report contains much previously undisclosed information about the Trump administration’s National Guard and active-duty military deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, which the Biden administration has yet to alter. The Pentagon didn’t view it as a high-priority mission, but it spent about a billion dollars since 2018 to support keeping as many as 8,300 troops at the border.
  • Lt. Cmdr. Collin Fox, a U.S. Navy officer who recently served at the U.S. embassy in Panama, published a scathing critique of the drug war, from a global strategy perspective, at War on the Rocks. It’s unusual to see an active duty officer use terms like “impossible distraction,” “simplistic,” and “ignoble failure” to describe an ongoing policy.
  • 49-year-old Édgar López was tragically failed by garbage institutions in three different countries. A corrupt state in his native Guatemala failed to create conditions, like education to gain marketable skills, to lift his community out of poverty. U.S. immigration and labor policies created the draw of under-the-table, low-wage labor at a chicken processing plant in Mississippi, where he worked and started a family, only to be swept up in one of Trump’s high-wattage ICE raids in 2019. Then, as he sought to return to his family, he was one of 19 people massacred in northern Mexico, apparently by organized crime-tied police. Vice tells López’s story.
  • In February 28 legislative and municipal elections, El Salvador’s president’s party might win a supermajority. The Honduran-Nicaraguan investigative website Expediente Público looks at the likelihood that the country may be headed in an authoritarian direction under Nayib Bukele, noting “the military’s elevated role in supporting Bukele.” Note also two analyses from the previous week at Honduras’s ContraCorriente: “Authoritarianism at the stroke of a tweet,” about El Salvador, and “Soldiers instead of doctors,” about pandemic-era Honduras.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, March 1, 2021
  • 4:00–5:30 at wilsoncenter.org: The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (RSVP required).
  • 4:00 at ub.edu.ar: Estrategias de Seguridad Nacional (RSVP required).
  • 9:00pm at CIDE Zoom: Polarización Política: ¿hay vuelta atrás? (RSVP required).
Tuesday, March 2, 2021
  • 12:00–1:20 at harvard.edu: The Return of the Military? (RSVP required).
  • 1:30–4:00 at wilsoncenter.org: A New Future for North America (RSVP required).
Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Thursday, March 4, 2021
  • 1:00–2:00 at thedialogue.org: Connectivity in the Americas (RSVP required).
Friday, March 5, 2021
  • 11:00–12:15 at wola.org: Coca and Violence in Colombia (RSVP required).
Some tweets that made me laugh last week
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