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Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #54

Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #54
By Weekly adamisacson.com • Issue #54 • View online
I’m sending this a day later than usual because… I work on the U.S.-Mexico border at WOLA. As you can see from the two written pieces posted below, that has meant a lot of clearing up confusion about a sad but very complicated situation. This means providing more factual information than the national conversation seems willing to absorb—but doing it anyway. “Wading through complexity” isn’t what Washington is known for, but we’re helping people do it, in lots of interviews, in lots of one-on-one and coalition meetings, on social media, and in conversation after conversation.
The pace has been hectic—I’m averaging 12-20 meetings, interviews, and calls per day right now, and my e-mails just keep falling behind. But then, it should be hectic. This is “go time”: March of a year with a new presidential administration that’s at least moving in the right direction. Still, I could use more bathroom breaks. (Not what I meant by “go time,” but I’ll leave it there.)
There’s been a lot of responding to things but hopefully this week I’ll get to carve out a moment to go beyond just damage control and “providing context.” We need to remind people of everything we’ve learned over the years about the right way to welcome asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. So stay tuned for that.

Document: Putting the U.S.-Mexico ‘Border Crisis’ Narrative into Context
What’s happening at the border right now is concerning: there are bottlenecks in caring for unaccompanied minors. But it’s not a crisis. If anything, the crisis is in the large number of people who continue to be expelled, within hours, without a hearing.
Four of us at WOLA just published an explainer that I think is pretty good. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really read the whole thing, it’s got a lot of good graphics in it.
It may seem ironic, but even as it carried out the cruelest anti-migration policies in decades, the Trump administration presided over the largest flows of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-2000s. 
This continued through Donald Trump’s last months in office, which saw migration rise sharply even as stringent pandemic measures made the pursuit of asylum impossible. This shows the futility of declaring war on asylum, and the inevitability of large migration flows at a time of overlapping security, economic, political, public health, and climate crises.
The jump in migration of Trump’s final months continued accelerating during Joe Biden’s first two months in office. This is happening even as Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps in place “Title 42,” a probably illegal Trump-era pandemic provision that expels most migrants within hours, regardless of their protection needs.
Is there a “crisis” of people attempting to cross the border? 
The increased numbers of people crossing the border right now is something that border experts have predicted for some time now. The roots of what is happening are in the Trump administration policies that caused massive numbers of people to be stuck on the Mexican side of the border—policies like “Remain in Mexico” (which forced over 70,000 asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexico border cities) and “metering,” a practice under which U.S. border authorities place severe limits on who is allowed to approach ports of entry and ask for asylum, in violation of U.S. and international law. 
The increased border crossings was predictable, not because of Biden administration policies like winding down “Remain with Mexico,” but because of the dangers put in place by Trump’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence.
Of the 114 months since October 2011 for which WOLA has detailed monthly data, February 2021 saw the third-most Border Patrol encounters with migrants. (The actual number of people was probably much lower since, as noted below, many migrants expelled under Title 42 attempt to re-enter shortly afterward.)
While third-most sounds like a lot, the impact on border authorities’ workload is minimal because Title 42 persists. Of the 96,974 migrants whom Border Patrol “encountered” in February, it quickly expelled 72 percent—down only slightly from the end of the Trump administration, which expelled 85 percent in December and 83 percent in January. The remainder whom Border Patrol actually had to process last month—26,791 migrants—was the 77th most out of the past 114 months. Being in 77th place hardly constitutes a crisis.
There is a serious capacity issue right now, though, for one especially vulnerable category of migrant: children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. 
There’s more — read on at wola.org.
Event video: Extrajudicial Killings in Colombia: The Whistleblower’s Perspective
You may have seen that Colombia’s transitional justice tribunal recently found that the country’s armed forces likely killed a shocking 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008. WOLA put on an event to talk about it last Thursday, and I presented while keeping myself to 22 slides. Here’s the video:
Extrajudicial Killings in Colombia: The Whistleblower’s Perspective
Extrajudicial Killings in Colombia: The Whistleblower’s Perspective
Weekly Border Update: March 19, 2021
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Administration scrambles to accommodate children while expelling most others
Unaccompanied children
Border Patrol apprehended 561 unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexico border on March 15, up from a daily average of 332 per day in February. On a March 18 call, senior Biden administration officials told reporters that about 14,000 migrant children who had arrived without a parent or guardian were in U.S. government custody.
Of these, 9,562 were in the shelter system of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services or HHS), where COVID-19 response had lowered a 13,200-bed systemwide capacity to about 8,000. Once they are in these shelters, ORR works to place the children with a relative or other sponsor in the United States, with whom they stay while the U.S. immigration court system decides whether deportation would endanger them. In more than 80 percent of cases, a relative is located, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas notified this week. In more than 40 percent of cases, that relative is a parent or legal guardian.
(Read more about how the processing and sheltering of unaccompanied migrant children are supposed to work, and how the caseload has grown, in our updates of March 12March 5, and February 26 and in a new explainer documentthat WOLA published on March 17.)
The remaining 4,500 unaccompanied children were stuck in Border Patrol stations and processing centers as of March 18, awaiting placement in ORR’s shelters. This shatters the previous high of 2,600 kids in temporary Border Patrol custody, set in June 2019. 
By law, children are not supposed to be in short-term Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours. The agency’s austere holding facilities—which resemble the holding tanks in a local police station or, as some say, “cages”—are not designed for vulnerable populations. As of March 14, though, when 4,200 kids were in Border Patrol facilities, about 3,000 had been there longer than 72 hours. The average time in custody climbed to 120 hours by March 17. CNN reported on March 15 that more than 300 of the kids had been stuck for more than 10 days.
Two attorneys who visited CBP’s temporary migrant processing facility in Donna, Texas on March 11 came away horrified by what they heard from 20 interviews with kids. The Donna facility, which is mostly sturdy tents, can hold 250 people but had about 1,000 at the time, and children said they had gone days without showering. Kids are sleeping on gym mats or on benches and concrete floors, under thin mylar blankets. Many have been stuck in crowded tents for days. A “staggering” number of the 1,000 kids at Donna are under 10 years old, one of the lawyers told the New York Times.
The main bottleneck here is at ORR: the agency’s shelter system is nearly out of space, and can’t place children with sponsors as fast as new kids are arriving at Border Patrol facilities. The federal government is taking several measures to increase its capacity:
  • On March 12 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowed ORR to return its bed space back to pre-pandemic levels.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of DHS) converted the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas into a shelter for up to 3,000 migrant boys age 15 to 17.
  • FEMA has also converted an oil workers’ camp in Midland, Texas, into temporary shelter space for another 700 children, and HHS is looking at other facilities in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, and Virgina.
  • On March 17 FEMA awarded $110 million in funds appropriated by the American Rescue Plan Act “to eligible local nonprofit and governmental organizations and state governmental facilities” working with migrants.
  • Secretary Mayorkas reported that more than 560 DHS employees had volunteered “to support HHS in our collective efforts to address the needs of the unaccompanied children.”
Families and expulsions
“We will have, I believe, by next month enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go,” President Joe Biden told ABC News. “Let’s get somethin’ straight though,” the president added (with the contraction in the original transcript). “The vast majority of people crossin’ the border are being sent back. Are being sent back, immediately sent back.”
This is true. As last week’s update noted72 percent of migrants Border Patrol encountered at the border in February were expelled, usually within hours, without seeing the inside of a CBP facility or having a chance to ask for asylum or protection. They are either flown back to their own countries or, if they are Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran, sent back across the border into Mexico, where the Mexican government has agreed to receive most of them.
This is done under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that permits rapid expulsions, and which two presidential administrations have now interpreted to mean rapid expulsions without regard to migrants’ protection needs. The Trump administration began employing Title 42 in March 2020.
The Biden administration continues to use it, but it is not expelling unaccompanied children. It is, however, expelling nearly all single adults and a large portion of family units (parents with children).
As CBS News reported a week ago, nearly 60 percent of families Border Patrol encountered in February were not expelled. That is up from 38 percent not expelled in January. There appear to be two main reasons why a family does not get expelled. Either they are from countries to which expulsions are difficult, like Cuba or Venezuela, or they are part of a minority of families from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) whom Mexico is refusing to take back.
Though there is no public written evidence of a policy, authorities in Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas have been refusing expulsions of families with small children, citing a lack of family-appropriate shelter space that would violate a recent child welfare law. (Ciudad Juárez faces some capacity limits too, according to the U.S. Border Patrol Chief in El Paso.) 
This has led Border Patrol and ICE to release some asylum-seeking Central American families, with notices to appear in U.S. immigration court, in south Texas border cities. There, charities have been taking in the modest flow of family members: about 150 migrants per day in Brownsville, for instance, where the mayor told local news, “It’s not a threat at this point.”
DHS has found a way, though, to expel many families despite Mexico’s localized restrictions: flying them to parts of the border where they can still expel them. On March 9 authorities in El Paso were notified that two daily planeloads of migrants would begin being flown all the way across the state, from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. Even as shelters prepared to greet the families, by March 13 it was evident that DHS was bringing most from the airport straight to the border, sending them across into Ciudad Juárez. WOLA has heard, but hasn’t yet fully confirmed, that flights are also going to San Diego to expel families into Tijuana.
As the border remains closed with no end to Title 42 in sight, national news covered populations of protection-seeking migrants crowding into Mexican border towns: in a new tent encampment outside Tijuana’s El Chaparral port of entry; among the tearful expelled population in Ciudad Juárez; and at a grim government shelter in Reynosa that is now holding 700 unaccompanied children apprehended by Mexican authorities. 
The Biden administration’s message to them continues to be “don’t come now,” as repeated by the president himself in his ABC News interview:
I can say quite clearly don’t come over. And the process of getting set up, and it’s not gonna take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don’t leave your town or city or community. We’re gonna make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by department of—by DHS and also access with HHS, the Health and Human Services, to say you can apply for asylum from where you are right now.
David Shahoulian, the DHS assistant secretary for border security and immigration, acknowledged that “the messaging to discourage migrants from coming had not been working and that the administration would need to be clearer in the future,” according to the New York Times. With thousands of expelled families clearly acting on erroneous information, it’s not clear what the administration can do to counteract inaccurate but rapidly propagated messages from smugglers and on social media. “At some point,” longtime Ciudad Juárez migration official Enrique Valenzuela told Public Radio International, “people were tricked into thinking that the U.S. opened its doors all the way to people seeking international protection.”
Reports indicate Biden administration pressing Mexico to interdict more migrants
In a March 1 video call with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the New York Times reported, President Biden asked Mexico to do more to “help solve the problem” of increased immigration flows to the United States. In the same conversation, López Obrador asked Biden for access to stockpiled doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which is not yet approved for use in the United States.
On March 18 the White House announced that the U.S. government would share 2.5 million vaccines with Mexico and 1.5 million with Canada. Mexico, meanwhile, has agreed to do more to contain migration through its territory and to take more families expelled under Title 42, the Times and the Washington Post reported. Both countries’ officials insist that there was no vaccines-for-border-enforcement quid pro quo; a senior Mexican diplomat told the Post that it was a “parallel negotiation.”
Whatever it was, the result could be more Title 42 expulsions of families into Mexico, which as noted above has been refusing to take back Central American families with small children in some areas. “Mexican officials have told the Biden administration they are willing to alter or delay the implementation of a law passed in November that limits their ability to detain minors,” the same article continues. DHS Secretary Mayorkas had hinted at this in a March 16 memo: “We are working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families.”
Mexican immigration and security forces have meanwhile stepped up immigration raids throughout its territory. Reuters reported that Mexican forces apprehended about 1,200 Central American migrants, including more than 300 children, along southern Mexican cargo train routes between January 25 and February 16. Another 800 were detained aboard buses and tractor trailers “in recent weeks.” Mexico has not released February migrant apprehension data yet; in January it reported apprehending 9,574 migrants—the second-highest monthly total since the pandemic began—of whom 9,145 were from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).
A more visible Mexican immigration enforcement effort is expected to be announced soon, according to current and former Mexican officials,” the Washington Post reported on March 18. The new effort, it added, may be targeted less at migrants along the train route—generally the poorest migrant population—and more at the larger number who travel, often in private vehicles, with paid smugglers. Such an operation may require a large anti-corruption component to succeed, since much of smugglers’ high fees are reportedly spread among officials who enable their vehicles to proceed.
Mexico has also agreed to increase its presence—mainly of members of its National Guard, a new militarized police force—near its southern border with Guatemala, according to the New York Times and Reuters. On March 18, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat announced that it would be closing its southern border to all non-essential traffic, as the United States has done with its southern border. It’s not clear yet what criteria must be met for travel to be “essential.”
Secretary Mayorkas testifies as GOP cranks up “crisis” rhetoric
“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children,” reads a March 16 memo from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas updating about the situation at the border. The secretary also gave his first major testimony since his nomination process concluded, appearing for four hours before a House Homeland Security Committee that displayed bitter divisions between its Democratic and Republican members.
“The border is secure, and the border is not open,” Mayorkas told the committee. His written testimony laid out very broad outlines for what a new approach to protection-seeking migration might look like, naming three elements: addressing root causes driving migration; helping regional governments offer more asylum or protection in their own countries; and “dramatically” improving the U.S. migrant processing and asylum adjudication systems.
That last point—asylum adjudication—is in bad shape: the testimony notes that backlogs are so bad that “[i]n some locations, there is a more than four-year waiting period for a final hearing.” Mayorkas’s March 16 memo sets a goal of “shorten[ing] from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.”
Republican legislators at the March 17 House Homeland hearing were sharply critical. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a committee member who is also the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised “Remain in Mexico” and other Trump-era restrictions on asylum, adding, “With all due respect, this administration has created this crisis. … Cartels and traffickers see that the green light is on at our southern border, and the United States is open for business.”
Several Republicans sought to get Mayorkas to use the word “crisis” to describe the situation at the border. The secretary’s reply to Rep. McCaul was blunt: “A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration.”
“Biden border crisis” is now one of the most prominent messages coming from GOP politicians and media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart. A group of 12 House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and ranking Homeland Security Committee member John Katko (R-New York), traveled to El Paso on March 15. They delivered statements in front of a half-mile segment of border wall that was built in 2019 by a private non-profit whose leadership—including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, until Trump pardoned him—is facing fraud charges. “There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” Rep. McCarthy said. Rep. Katko called it “disorder at the border by executive order.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been vocal about the border situation, made a March 17 appearance using as a backdrop the Dallas convention center where FEMA is sheltering unaccompanied children. “The Biden administration opened the floodgates to any child who wants to come across the border,” he said. Abbott asked the federal government to give Texas law enforcement officers access to the children in the convention center, in order to investigate human trafficking. The Biden administration turned him down on grounds that the children should not be forced to undergo the trauma of repeating their stories several times.
Two sets of Republicans’ claims about the border situation have been widely debunked.
First, Abbott and others had been alleging that the migrant population is spreading COVID-19. In fact, the acting head of FEMA reported that less than 6 percent of tests on migrants have come back positive, lower than Texas’s overall 7.4 percent positivity rate. Migrants in Brownsville showed a similar positivity rate: 210 of nearly 3,000 people tested since January 25, or 6 percent.
Second is terrorism. Katko, McCarthy, and others on the March 15 El Paso visit said Border Patrol agents told them they had apprehended four individuals so far in fiscal year 2021 who were on the U.S. “Known or Suspected Terrorist” list (or perhaps the Terrorist Screening Database). Three were from Yemen and one was from Serbia; McCarthy had also named Iran, Turkey, and China but later had to retract. While the U.S. government is not transparent about this data, four apprehensions of people on the watchlist appears to be normal, according to a Washington Post fact checkthat surmised, “the real number ranges from around three to a dozen per year.”
Former officials noted that being on this list is only an alert, and does not point to actual involvement in terrorism; it often indicates a degree of separation from a suspected terrorist. Investigative journalist Ryan Deveraux, who looked deeply into this in 2014, tweeted that the database “is a train wreck that has been shown to include huge numbers of people without facts or evidence.”
The “border crisis” narrative is likely to persist until ORR can accommodate the rising numbers of unaccompanied children, and until processing and other capacity exist to allow a long overdue wind-down of Title 42. In the meantime, as the Washington Post and Politico noted, Republicans are seizing on immigration as their banner issue as they endeavor to win back congressional majorities in the 2022 midterm elections.
“Can we just agree not to use these human beings in front of us as political pawns?” Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House migrant shelter, told Politico. “Let’s just make sure they’re taken care of.”
Links
  • Don’t miss the 3,200-word explainer that WOLA published this week, covering the current moment for U.S. border policy and migration, and recommendations for what lies ahead.
  • Gen. Glen Vanherck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters that 3,500 National Guardsmen from 22 states remain deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border. That deployment is “100 percent of the forces” currently at the border, he said, which implies that the regular military personnel deployed by President Trump in 2019 are no longer there. The troops are manning observation sites looking for border-crossers, using 24 UH-72 helicopters for aerial detection and monitoring, and helping to maintain CBP vehicles. DHS, Gen. Vanherck continued, has indicated it would like the military presence to continue after its next expiration date, the September 30 end of fiscal year 2021. (As noted in our February 26 update, the military deployment was the subject of a detailed report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).)
  • The New York Times covers the fragments of half-built border wall scattered across wilderness areas as the Biden administration’s pause on barrier construction continues. The Palm Springs Desert Sun looks at segments of wall built at great cost in south-central California’s Jacumba wilderness.
  • The “La 72” migrant shelter, near the Guatemalan border in Tenosique, Mexico, attended to 2,836 people in the pandemic year 2020, according to its annual report released this week. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that “La 72” had already attended to 6,000 migrants so far in 2021.
  • The remains of 16 migrants massacred—probably by state police—on January 22 in Tamaulipas, Mexico, were returned to the migrants’ hometown of Comitancillo, San Marcos, Guatemala. That town, the Wall Street Journal reports, has sent many emigrants to Carthage, Mississippi, where a giant 2019 ICE raid of chicken processing plants caught up one of the murdered migrants, Édgar López, a longtime Carthage resident who was trying to return.
  • Border Patrol agent Alejandro Flores-Bañuelos, age 35, died on March 15 after being struck by a passing vehicle while assisting a traffic collision in southeast California’s El Centro sector.
  • NBC News reports that DHS is requiring that all inquiries to local Border Patrol personnel be routed through the press office in Washington, as was the policy during the Obama administration. Unnamed officials referred to it as a “gag order.”
  • Former Border Patrol agent Jenn Budd, a prominent critic of her former employer and its culture, believes that the agency is manufacturing a sense of crisis at the border right now. She contends that agents likely helped concoct a strange video, which appeared on CNN, depicting smugglers taking a boatload of migrants across the Rio Grande in broad daylight.
Colombia Peace Update: March 20, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Jineth Bedoya’s Inter-American Court case delayed as government “walks out” of hearing
One of Colombia’s most emblematic human rights cases suffered a momentary but confounding setback, as government representatives abruptly withdrew from a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
This Court is an OAS-affiliated body, based in Costa Rica, that hears cases when signatory nations’ judiciaries have proved unable to win redress for victims. It was holding a virtual hearing on March 15 for oral arguments in the case of Jineth Bedoya, a prominent journalist who was abducted, raped, and tortured, with security forces’ involvement, in 2000.
That year Bedoya, then a reporter at El Espectador, was investigating networks of arms trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activity linking paramilitaries, guerrillas, organized crime, and members of the security forces. These networks centered on Bogotá’s La Modelo prison, which both then and now has been a violent place. (A year ago, on March 21, 2020, guards killed 24 prisoners there, apparently shooting to kill, while putting down a riot.) “La Modelo was the ‘office’ from which all crime in the country was connected,” reads an account from Bedoya reproduced this week by journalist Cecilia Orozco.
In May 2000, Bedoya was receiving threats from paramilitaries as she investigated a massacre of 32 prisoners at La Modelo. On the morning of May 25, 2000, she showed up at the prison gate—which is not far from the Chief Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) and the U.S. embassy—for an arranged meeting with paramilitaries who had been threatening her. “It was a trap,” Bedoya recalls. She was abducted from the front door of the prison and driven out of the city, tortured, and repeatedly raped. “Then I don’t know what happened. I was left abandoned on a road, almost dead.”
Even as a respected reporter from mainstream media outlets (she later moved to El Tiempo), and even as a 2012 State Department “International Woman of Courage,” Jineth Bedoya has been unable to win justice for what happened to her. Only three of her attackers—low-level actors—have been sentenced. The Fiscalía mysteriously lost key evidence. “For 11 years the prosecutor who was in charge of the case would call me to suggest that I investigate, and give the results to him.” The Fiscalía forced her to narrate, and relive, what was done to her on 12 different occasions. One of her sources was killed an hour after meeting with her. She learned that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction.
She went to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which issued recommendations to Colombia for her case. These went unmet. The next step was to go to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which took her case in May 2019. It reached its oral arguments phase, with hearings set to begin on March 15, 2021. The Guardian hailedwhat appeared to be a big step toward justice:
“To bring my case before an international court not only vindicates what happened to me, as a woman and a journalist,” Bedoya said in a video shared on Twitter. “It opens a window of hope for thousands of women and girls who, like me, had to face sexual violence in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict.”
That’s not quite what happened. The hearing, held virtually due to COVID-19, began with justices asking Bedoya questions. After a while, the government’s representative asked to speak.
That representative was Camilo Gómez, head of the National Agency for the Legal Defense of the State (ANDJE) in President Iván Duque’s government. From 2000 to 2002 Gómez was the high commissioner for peace—the government’s chief negotiator—for then-president Andrés Pastrana’s failed effort to negotiate peace with the FARC.
Instead of addressing what happened to Bedoya, Gómez charged that the Court’s six judges were “pre-judging” Colombia during the day’s questioning, and called for all but one of them to be recused. The government’s legal team then abruptly exited the virtual hearing. The judges heard from one more witness, then suspended the Court’s proceedings while they determined what to do next.
Condemnation of the government’s response came quick. “The Colombian government’s decision to effectively stomp out of the Inter-American Court hearing shows the authorities’ shocking disregard for the violence inflicted on Jineth Bedoya, and is a slap in the face to every Colombian journalist—especially women journalists—fighting impunity,” said Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I have been litigating before the Inter-American Court for 25 years, said Bedoya’s lawyer Viviana Krsticevic, the director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “and this is unusual, unheard of, we are surprised that the State of Colombia is doing what even really authoritarian governments like Fujimori’s government in Peru, Ortega’s in Nicaragua, Maduro’s in Venezuela, did not do.”
On March 17 Camilo Gómez sent Bedoya a letter, which he made public on Twitter, suggesting an out-of-court settlement. Such offers have happened before, said Jonathan Bock of the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), but they have merely been offers of monetary payments without the government recognizing its responsibility for what happened to Bedoya. Bedoya’s legal team refused, adding that making the letter public was “an act of harassment and malicious litigation.”
On March 18 the Court’s judges, led by the one justice whom Gómez had not called to be recused, rejected the Colombian government’s request for new judges. Jineth Bedoya’s hearing is set to restart on March 22 as though nothing had happened.
Numerous activists and analysts voiced puzzlement at the Colombian government’s behavior, showing insensitivity to a high-profile victim while inviting a legal defeat. Santiago Medina-Villarreal, a former lawyer at the Inter-American Court, fears that the government is playing a long game, sending a message ahead of future cases scheduled to go before the Court. “With this attitude, the State intends to undermine with doubts the judges’ appearance of impartiality.” An effort to de-legitimize the Court, Krsticevic told El Tiempo, “would be very serious for Colombia and the region.”
“They killed me on the morning of May 25 [2000],” Jineth Bedoya writes. “I believed that words are the best way to transform pain. But my life is over: having to see the marks of sexual violence and torture on my body every day is something that does not allow me to close this cycle definitively.”
U.S. officials point to outlines of Biden approach to coca and peace
While eradicating record amounts of coca manually, Colombia continues to move toward restarting a U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where the plant is grown. Citing health concerns, the government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this program in 2015. As past weekly updates have noted, the new Biden administration is not opposing continued U.S. support for “fumigation.” In fact, February and March State Department documents hailed the Duque government’s efforts to relaunch the program.
On March 14, El Tiempo’s longtime Washington correspondent, Sergio Gómez, shed a bit more light on the Biden administration’s thinking, excerpting views on eradication and peace accord implementation from interviews with several officials. In general, these officials and legislative staff told Gómez that they don’t see fumigation or forced eradication as keys to long-term reductions in coca-growing. Instead, they voiced a preference for implementation of the 2016 peace accord and increasing government presence in long-abandoned rural territories.
Here are a few highlights indicating how official thinking may be evolving:
  • ”A senior U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá authorized to speak on this issue: “Essentially, our idea is that the territorial transformation that would come from the full implementation of the accords is the best long-term security strategy and the most promising and sustainable solution to the problem of illicit crops.”
  • Another U.S. Embassy official: “The clearest lesson from the period from 2012 to 2017, when cultivation went from its lowest point to its highest in just 5 years, is that Colombia was successful in reducing crops, but not in sustaining those gains. … The best way to sustain them is to increase the presence of the state and offer economic opportunities in rural areas. You can’t just eradicate and attack criminal groups.”
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who voiced disappointment with a February State Department document praising fumigation: “We want to help Colombia reduce coca production and cocaine trafficking, but as we have seen over the years sustainable progress is not measured in the number of hectares eradicated. Government presence—in the territories most affected by this problem—is not achieved simply by sending in armed forces. Nor do we see evidence that illegal armed groups are being dismantled, especially when so many social leaders are being threatened and killed.”
  • A senior legislative aide, who said that the State Department’s recent written praise for forced eradication “seemed ‘outdated’ or the work of some Trump administration holdover”: “We want to see progress in coca reduction, but we don’t see anything that gives us confidence that the Duque government has a sustainable strategy to achieve it.”
  • Another congressional staffer: “When Plan Colombia kicked off in 2000, the goal was to reduce coca cultivation by half in 5 years. And here we are, 20 years later and there is still the same or more drugs than two decades ago with a ‘new plan’—agreed between Duque and Trump—that again seeks to reduce crops by half in another 5 years.”
Sen. Leahy’s office told El TIempo “that the Senator ‘would oppose the use of U.S. funds to finance aerial spraying’ when it resumes,” which could mean a fight if the Biden administration decides to keep supporting the controversial herbicide spray program.
The ELN and Ecuador’s elections
The candidate who led February 7 first-round voting for Ecuador’s presidential election is vehemently denying allegations that his campaign received support from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Andrés Arauz, the candidate favored by left-populist ex-president Rafael Correa, is threatening legal action.
On October 25, a Colombian Army raid in Chocó killed Andrés Felipe Vanegas, alias “Uriel,” a mid-ranking ELN leader who had a high profile because he gave frequent interviews. At the site of the raid, soldiers reportedly recovered computers and other data devices with over 3 terabytes of information.
On January 30, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana received some of that information from official sources. An e-mail from Uriel to two other ELN members, presumed to be contacts in Ecuador, appeared to refer to a US$80,000 “investment” in “supporting hope.” Andrés Arauz’s political coalition is called the “Union for Hope.”
On February 12, a few days after Arauz led first-round voting with 32.7 percent, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (FIscal), Francisco Barbosa, paid a quick visit to Quito to hand over to his Ecuadorian counterpart all evidence from “Uriel” pointing to links between the ELN and Arauz.
Last week Arauz enlisted the aid of a Colombian jurist, former Fiscal Eduardo Montealegre, an opponent of Colombia’s current ruling party whose term coincided completely with the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. As El Colombiano explains, the Ecuadorian candidate granted Montealegre power of attorney “to investigate and file a complaint for falsehood and procedural fraud against Colombia due to allegations linking him to the ELN.”
Arauz called the allegations a “crude setup.” He argued that “Uriel” operated far from Colombia’s border with Ecuador, and questioned the Colombian armed forces’ honesty, arguing that they have engaged in a cover-up of thousands of extrajudicial executions—the so-called “false positives” human rights scandal. He added that he sees Colombia’s conservative government engaging in “a state policy to delegitimize and undermine governments with progressive tendencies.” The ELN, for its part, also rejects the allegations, calling them “fake news.”
We are unlikely to learn what really happened before April 11, when Ecuadorians vote in the presidential runoff election. Polling is sparse, but the race appears close between Arauz and center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso.
Links
  • WOLA hosted a discussion on March 18 about the Colombian military’s “false positives” killings, which the transitional justice system (JEP) revealed in February to have likely been more extensive than most knew. On March 17, the Mothers of False Positives (MAFAPO) presented a report to the Truth Commission.
  • In May 2019, the New York Times had triggered an outcry by reporting that Colombia’s Army leadership was returning to “body counts” as a measure of success, setting numerical goals for units to meet. The Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) just completed an investigation begun that month, exonerating the Army’s commander at the time, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, of “pressuring or requiring” generals “to meet minimum targets for casualties, captures or demobilizations.”
  • El Tiempo reported that coroners have identified the bodies of eight of the ten people killed in a March 2 bombing raid on a FARC dissident site in Guaviare. One of the eight was a 16-year-old girl. (El Nuevo Siglo reported that coroners determined a second girl, age 15, was also killed in the attack, but the El Tiempo story makes no mention of this.) As noted in last week’s update, charges that child combatants were among the dead led Defense Minister Diego Molano to make some very crude remarks about child combatants.
  • Colombia’s Congress briefly faced a legislative proposal to extend President Duque’s term by two years, along with those of members of Congress, mayors, governors, high court judges, the chief prosecutor, and other top officials. The initiative quickly collapsed after news of it emerged, and 15 legislators withdrew their signatures.
  • “In the coming months, negotiations will be concluded for the acquisition of 24 new, state-of-the-art fighter planes,” Semana reports. The purchase could total US$4 billion.
  • The next step for the witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe will take place on April 6, when a judge will consider the Fiscalía’s request to drop the charges. (See the overview of the case in our March 6 update.)
  • The JEP’s “top-down” investigation of the FARC’s mass kidnappings, which featured the indictment of eight top leaders in February, is moving down the chain of command, with three mid-level leaders providing grim testimony of the inhuman treatment to which they subjected their kidnap victims.
5 links from the past week
  • With a document collection, the National Security Archive marks the tenth anniversary of the Allende massacre in Coahuila, Mexico, when Zetas—apparently responding to information leaked by a Mexican intelligence official—obliterated an entire town.
  • At the New York Review of Books, Delphine Schrank covers the human toll of the two strong hurricanes that hit Honduras within two weeks of each other last fall.
  • James Fredrick at NPR looks at the accusations of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s collusion with narcotraffickers, which have been piling up in a U.S. court.
  • At Vice, Nathaniel Janowitz reports on what the brutal rise of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has meant for life in Guadalajara, Mexico’s “second city.”
  • There was a lot of coverage of the situation at the border last week, but little of it was long-form or in depth. This New York Times piece looking at short, medium, and long-term options was useful.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, March 22
  • 6:30-7:00pm at seaif.org: Una conversación entre mujeres con coraje (RSVP required).
Tuesday, March 23
Wednesday, March 24
Thursday, March 25
Friday, March 26
  • 10:30-12:00 at thedialogue.org: Afro-descendants: Striving for Equality in Latin America (RSVP required).
Some tweets that made me laugh last week
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