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Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #59

Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #59
By Weekly adamisacson.com • Issue #59 • View online
When I was in college in the early nineties, El Salvador was showing Latin America that a bitter civil war could end in negotiations, and that a country with a long history of dictatorship could start opening up and transitioning to democracy. Twenty-five years later, in the mid-2010s, Colombia held up hope that, once again, a negotiation between longtime combatants could usher in a new moment of hope, tranquility, political participation, and more inclusive governance.
Those hopeful moments had a lot of influence on me and my work. That has made it more painful to watch the past few days’ events in both countries.
As soon as it was seated, a legislative supermajority in El Salvador spent Saturday night firing the independent Constitutional Court and Attorney General, on behalf of authoritarian-trending President Nayib Bukele. Even Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted disapproval.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s security forces have responded in brutal and escalatory fashion to protests around the country: I can’t handle (or verify) the volume of abuse denunciations in my WhatsApp, Twitter, email, and other feeds. The death and injury is happening in several cities. This indicates to me that Colombia’s government—which the U.S. government describes as a close ally—has very likely given a green light to unaccountable state violence against those who dare to speak out against it, all in the name of fighting vandals and looters on the margins of otherwise peaceful gatherings.
It’s heartbreaking watching this sharp backward lurch. But there are a few reasons for hope. The Biden administration, for now at least, has broken with historical U.S. patterns and sent strong public rebukes of El Salvador’s putatively pro-U.S. leader. The U.S. government has been silent so far on Colombia, but the mere fact that street protests are able to persist—and forced President Iván Duque to withdraw a regressive tax reform—is encouraging. That would probably have been unthinkable before the peace accord, when protesters were easily marginalized by stigmatizing them as plainclothes guerrillas.
Still, it was an awful weekend for democracy in the Americas.
Most of what’s in this email was written before the weekend, with the exception of the below statement about Colombia that we rushed out on Sunday night. Otherwise, below you’ll find a podcast, a quick NPR interview about ICE and CBP organizational culture, weekly Colombia and border updates, links to upcoming events, and some funny tweets.

Police Violence in Colombia is Unacceptable, U.S. Policymakers Must Take Action
As police go on what appears to be a government-sanctioned rampage against protesters in several cities around Colombia, we banged out this statement on Sunday night. After a couple of years of police brutality during protests, it’s crazy that the United States still doesn’t apply the same country-specific human rights conditions to Colombia’s National Police that it applies to its armed forces. And it’s long past time for a declared suspension on all grants and sales of the crowd control equipment that is being so egregiously misused right now.
Here is our statement published late on May 2.
WOLA Podcast: The Complexity of Engaging with Central America
The birds in my backyard and I recorded a podcast with two WOLA colleagues who are longtime experts on Central America, just as the Biden administration goes into overdrive on a big new policy push to address the reasons why so many people migrate from the region. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page.
Top Biden administration officials, including Vice President Harris, are developing a new approach to Central America. The theme is familiar: addressing migration’s “root causes.” Violence and corruption, as well as relatively new factors such as climate change, have caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes seeking a better life.
This week’s podcast focuses both on the factors displacing people as well as what the U.S. government’s plans to address the displacement. Our President, Geoff Thale, as well as our director for Citizen Security, Adriana Beltran, talk with Adam Isacson about the Biden administration’s short and long-term plans for the region, what can be done to implement an effective anti-corruption strategy, how to protect marginalized groups/human rights defenders, and the political considerations that come with legislating on an issue that will certainly last beyond Biden’s time in office.
Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.
On NPR talking about the ICE nominee
The Biden administration has named reformist border-state sheriffs to head CBP and ICE—two agencies in serious need of reform. If confirmed, they may face real friction with management and rank-and-file. Great conversation about this on Saturday with Michel Martin on NPR’s All Things Considered.
Colombia peace update: May 1, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Proposed tax hike spurs a new round of street protests
This is a developing story. We had to cut off information-gathering and start writing after Friday, so the next update will cover events from May 1 onward.
Tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of dozens of cities starting on April 28, in the third round of major protests the country has seen since November 2019. This time, the triggering factor of the “Paro Nacional” was a tax increase President Iván Duque had proposed to close a growing budget gap. The tax proposal proved to be a “last straw” sending people into the streets, with a long list of grievances, despite a record peak of coronavirus cases.
Colombia needs to raise funds to reduce its deficit (perhaps 8.6 percent of GDP this year) and guarantee basic income for the absolute poorest. However, the tax reform bill handed down by Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla is so unpopular that even Duque’s political patron, former president Álvaro Uribe, abandoned it and submitted an alternative bill.
Though it would raise marginal income tax rates on the wealthiest to as much as 41 percent—perhaps 25 percent of total income—it included surprisingly regressive elements, given sharp pandemic-related collapses in households’ buying power. Not only would it have applied income taxes for the first time to workers making as little as 2.5 million pesos (US$670) per week, it would have raised value-added (sales) taxes on public utilities, fuel, and other basic goods that even the poorest need to purchase. “There are tax measures that would only aggravate the conditions of the least favored people, but increase their number,” warned the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference.
The “strike committee,” heavily composed of union leaders, said that while the tax legislation left them no choice but to protest, they were also demanding an end to systematic killings of social leaders and the lack of guaranteed basic income. La Silla Vacía talked to a few dozen participants, who mentioned social leaders, corruption, lack of implementation of the peace accord, the likelihood that aerial herbicide fumigation could restart in coca-growing areas, and a generalized frustration with Colombia’s “traditional political class.”
The protests happened despite an April 27 order from a court in Cundinamarca, which has jurisdiction over Bogotá, ordering that any protest permits be suspended for public health reasons. Colombia is in the midst of its third and deadliest wave of COVID-19 cases, with over 450 deaths per day as the P.1 “Brazilian variant” of the virus sweeps through the country. There were no protest permits to revoke, however, as the “strike committee” didn’t seek any. Despite the restrictions, protest turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations, with marches in about 300 towns and cities around the country.
While the overwhelming majority of participants were peaceful, some individuals took advantage of the situation to commit acts of vandalism and looting, especially in Bogotá and Cali, and especially after dark. In Cali, reports Voice of America, “public buses were burnt, and across the country windows were shattered, with reports saying rioters had broken into into stores and banks. In Bogotá, local officials reported that vandalism left 11% of the city’s transport system affected or in disrepair.” The National Police health director told press that violence had wounded 87 police agents around the country. “We regret the isolated acts of vandalism that occurred in two or three cities and reject the strange looting that occurred in Cali in which the demonstrators were not involved,” said Francisco Maltés, president of Colombia’s largest union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT).
Authorities committed many acts of violence as well, starting with the use of tear gas and stun grenades to clear a peaceful gathering in the central Plaza de Bolívar on the afternoon of the 28th. On that day Temblores, an NGO that keeps a database of police violence, counted “35 victims of physical violence by the police; three victims of homicidal violence by the police; one person killed during the mobilization; 22 arbitrary arrests of demonstrators; 27 violent interventions by the security forces; and five raids on demonstrators.” Several protesters suffered eye damage: as in Chile, some police appear to be directing their “non-lethal” crowd control weapons at eyes. In Cali, according to NGO reports, police went on a rampage the evening of April 30, killing at least seven people, probably more.
As during past protests—a November 2019 Paro Nacional and a September 2020 response to a brutal police killing caught on video—figures on Colombia’s political right sought to tie violent protesters to national armed groups, and called for more use of force. Former president Uribe called for the Army to be sent into the streets. Defense Minister Diego Molano said that “the violent events in Cali were premeditated, planned and sponsored by criminal organizations,” naming FARC dissident groups among them, and pledged to deploy 2,500 more security force members in that city.
“Those who organize to violate the citizenry and create anxiety and chaos in the residents of each city are terrorists,” said Chief Prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, who claimed that a “clandestine brigade” was behind acts of vandalism in these and earlier protests. “What they have done today is a crime against life, health and citizenship rights of all Colombians.”
Protesters vowed to remain on the streets through the May 1 Labor Day holiday, pushing the Duque government to withdraw or reconsider its tax hike package.
Demobilized guerrillas suffer a wave of killings
“The week of April 14-21, 2021 was one of the deadliest for ex-combatants since the signing of the Final Peace Agreement,” reads a statement from the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). “According to the period analyzed, there were 7 murders, on average one every 24 hours, and 1 attempted homicide against reincorporated combatants in five departments.”
The list of demobilized FARC members killed since April 14 now totals eight, in seven departments of Colombia.All victims were men in rural areas:
  • Fayber Camilo Cufiño, killed April 14 in La Macarena, Meta.
  • Jhon Sebastián Ávila Romero, killed April 17 in a rural zone of Villavicencio, Meta.
  • Yeison Ayala, killed April 18 in Puerto Cachicamo, San José del Guaviare, Guaviare.
  • Luis Fernando Córdoba Hurtado, killed April 20 en a rural zone of Quibdó, Chocó.
  • Mayiber Tapias Monsalve, killed on April 21 in an unspecified municipality of Antioquia.
  • Adolfo Rodríguez, killed on April 21 in Fortul, Arauca.
  • Wilmer Enrique Álvarez Medina, killed on April 22 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
  • Hernando Guerrero Torres, killed April 25 in Dolores, Tolima.
INDEPAZ, a human rights group that maintains a database of killed ex-combatants, counts 22 murders so far in 2021. Figures from the JEP cited in El Tiempo are even higher: 24 murders of FARC ex-combatants so far this year—1.5 per week, a higher rate than the 1.3 in 2020—and 289 overall killings of ex-combatants since the FARC started demobilizing at the end of 2016. The count maintained by the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, is actually smaller: 271 as of April 26.
The JEP found “critical” levels of danger in 10 municipalities covering 7 departments, 4 of them in Cauca. It noted that about 20 percent of murdered combatants “were leaders in political issues, associated with productive projects, representatives of cooperatives, or leading illicit crop substitution processes.”
In a communiqué sounding alarms about the situation of ex-combatants and social leaders around the country, the UN Verification mission reiterated “Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to advance recovery efforts in the country in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic,” and called for stronger measures to protect people.
Emilio Archila, who as presidential counselor for stabilization and consolidation is the government official with most authority over peace accord implementation, insisted that the Duque administration is working to protect excombatants. “We have an absolutely dynamic way of working,” he told El Tiempo, contending that ex-combatant killings dropped 10 percent from 2019 to 2020 and that 2021 so far has seen fewer killings than 2020. “Of all the entities that participate in this prevention, the technical directors meet once every two weeks, analyze and adapt the measures depending on the conclusions they draw from the increase or decrease of these murders. In addition, the heads meet once a month to make this type of analysis, and the intelligence bubble of the Ministry of Defense follows up on a daily basis to adapt actions according to the situation.”
El Espectador noted, though, that the Duque government has not been using the tools that the 2016 peace accord created to protect ex-combatants. “In 38 months of President Iván Duque’s administration,” the paper reported, “the National Commission for Security Guarantees—a body created by the Peace Accord to dismantle the groups that are heirs to paramilitarism and which should meet once a month—has only met on six occasions. And, according to members of civil society and human rights platforms in that Commission, none of those meetings has taken up the public policy for dismantling of those groups, which is in fact its objective.”
Renewed fighting on Venezuelan side of the border
Starting about April 5, our April 17 update had reported, there appeared to be a lull in fighting that first flared up on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and FARC dissident groups in Apure, Venezuela, just across the border from Arauca, Colombia. That lull ended on April 23, with a renewed series of skirmishes and aerial bombings in the rural zone of the border town of La Victoria, Apure.
According to sketchy reports, members of the “10th Front,” a group headed by ex-FARC members who refused to demobilize, ambushed Venezuelan troops carrying out operations. Combat stretched well into the April 24-25 weekend. Juan Francisco García of FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO, told El Espectador that the dissidents brought 10 bodies to a local church and that another 9 cadavers were reportedly in a nearby hospital. “There are unconfirmed reports that FARC dissidents have seized a large quantity of weapons,” he added.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on April 26 that the armed forces had suffered casualties during the prior 72 hours, though he did not specify how many. Eight Venezuelan personnel had been killed in the earlier March-April round of fighting.
While this is all at the level of rumor, conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told El Espectador that the fighting’s lull and resurgence may owe to back-channel negotiation attempts and personnel changes:
After the first change of the commander in charge of the operation, a context of tense calm had been generated in which the local and national government were inviting Apureños to return to the area. This happened approximately 12 days before this past weekend.
It is believed that the government may have been holding a confidential negotiation with the dissidents to try to reach an agreement. And indeed, although tensions existed, there were no military actions; no explosions or machine gun fire were heard again. However, at the end of last week there was a change of the person in charge of the operation and since Friday there were again bursts of gunfire in the rural area.
The initial fighting had displaced about 5,888 people from Venezuela into Colombia, according to Colombian authorities. A new report by Human Rights Watch observed that the number may be larger: “in late March, when official numbers indicated that 4,500 people had fled,” local officials in Colombia’s Arauquita municipality told HRW that “approximately 3,000 more were staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas.” During the period of calm, some of the displaced had been abandoning temporary shelters and attempt to return: as many as 30 to 40 percentaccording to Colombian border management director Lucas Gómez.
Human Rights Watch and Venezuelan NGOs blame much of the displacement on “egregious abuses against local residents” committed by Venezuelan security forces carrying out operations against the 10th Front. Venezuelan units identified in HRW’s report include the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB), “the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the National Anti-Extortion and Anti-Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS).” Among the worst confirmed abuses in the report was the March 25 massacre of a family in La Victoria, which had been the subject of many prior unconfirmed reports.
Colombian armed groups operate freely in Apure and other parts of Venezuela, in part filling a vacuum of collapsed state presence, as a New York Times feature, focused mainly on another part of the border, reported on April 26. In Apure, there are three such groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, who have been in the zone since the 1980s; the 10th Front FARC dissidents, which are affiliated with the largest dissident network, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte”; and the “Nueva Marquetalia,” the FARC dissident group formed by top guerrilla peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other high-profile leaders who rejected the peace process in 2019. The latter group appears to have a much smaller physical presence in the area.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano continues to argue that the Venezuelan regime is favoring the “Nueva Marquetalia,” seeking to ease its entry into Apure, forcing the 10th Front to negotiate with it. Molano, the Venezuelan opposition-aligned daily Tal Cual reported, “put forward a second theory that Miraflores [the Venezuelan presidency] was seeking to test the government of U.S. President Joe Biden in order to improve relations with Washington.”
In a good analysis of Colombian armed group activity deep within Venezuelan territory, International Crisis Group analyst Bram Ebus noted that although what is happening in Apure is much more intense than usual, “even if things sometimes boil over, the Maduro government’s wrath with [Colombian] guerrilla groups does not seem to last long.”
Along the Orinoco, as at other parts of the border, links among armed groups, state officials and residents are brittle relationships rooted in self-interest. The ELN and FARC dissidents run similar illicit businesses, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, and both work alongside local Venezuelan authorities and security forces, but each guerrilla faction manages its trafficking routes and contraband shipments separately. Alliances appear to depend more on profit than ideology or geopolitical position.
Ebus added that in other parts of the border, like Táchira, Venezuelan forces have cast aside any ideological claim by colluding with groups descended from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups. He recalled that collusion with armed groups occurs on the Colombian side of the border as well, citing examples in Vichada department:
Within the Puerto Carreño municipality, there is a Colombian army battalion, a national police unit and a naval brigade patrolling the rivers. But clashes between Bogotá’s military and armed groups are infrequent. Some sources, including local officials, allege that corrupt elements in the military are collaborating with non-state actors, but most say the two sides have no more than a tacit understanding aimed at preventing violence. “Here, they [non-state armed groups] learned to behave well with public forces”, an official explained, arguing that more brazen violence results in a larger troop presence – which is bad for business.
As Venezuelan Defense Minister Padrino vowed to “continue and intensify military operations” in the zone, Ebus lamented the lack of a communication channel between the Colombian government and Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Caracas. Without it, the border region is missing a key brake that could prevent escalation to an inter-state conflict.
Without a means for the two governments to communicate even as they accuse each other of sponsoring armed proxies, any military build-up close to the border, outbreak of violence or guerrilla offensive could be misinterpreted as a plot hatched by the neighbor. Incommunicado deadlock is beginning to look more dangerous with each day.
Links
  • Seven top FARC leaders have taken the important judicial step of pleading guilty to charges of kidnapping. The JEP had issued the charges in January. It took the FARC leadership a few months, including asking for an extension, to come around to admitting their responsibility for at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Families representing seven Valle del Cauca departmental legislators whom the FARC kidnapped in 2002 and killed in 2007 demanded that the accused be removed from seats in Congress and confined in conditions of restricted liberty.
  • Despite the victim’s family’s efforts, Colombia’s military justice system will hear the case of Dilan Cruz, the 18-year-old protester killed in November 2019 by a riot policeman (ESMAD) using a putatively non-lethal weapon. A new Supreme Court ruling finds that Cruz’s killing was an “act of service” and need not go to the civilian criminal justice system, where the probability of a guilty verdict would be higher.
  • Colombia’s national statistics agency (DANE) published new data showing a huge pandemic-caused economic reversal. 3.5 million Colombians fell into poverty in 2020. 42.5 percent are now below the official poverty line of 331,688 pesos (US$89) per person per month (higher in cities), and 15 percent (7.4 million people, a 59 percent increase over 2019) are in extreme poverty, unable even to pay for sufficient food.
  • The latest annual report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found Colombia, with Latin America’s third-largest population, in second place behind Brazil among the region’s defense budgets. SIPRI reported that Colombia spent US$9.2 billion on its military in 2020, 26th in the world. Thirty-three members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter asking that a trillion pesos (US$268 million) be transferred from Defense to pandemic-related public health needs.
  • The commander of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command took a team of “security assistance experts”—people who handle arms sales, basically—to Colombia for a several-day, in-person visit.
  • By a 553-77 vote, the European Parliament passed a resolution praising the 2016 peace accord, condemning recent violence against ex-combatants and social leaders, calling on existing armed groups to cease attacks on civilians and commit to peace, and calling on EU bodies to continue assistance to peace accord implementation.
  • The Defense Ministry announced that seven people had been arrested in connection with the April 17 disappearance of an off-duty Army lieutenant colonel, Pedro Enrique Pérez, in the conflictive town of Saravena, Arauca. Lt. Col. Pérez, last seen leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman, is believed to be captive of the 10th Front FARC dissident group, possibly being held across the border from Saravena in Venezuela. Meanwhile, a likely ELN ambush in Arauquita, which neighbors Saravena, killed a sergeant and wounded four other soldiers.
  • 27,435 people were forcibly displaced by violence during the first 3 months of 2021, a 96 percent increase over the first quarter of 2020, according to the Human Rights Ombusdman’s Office (Defensoría).
  • At La Silla Vacía, Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group published a fieldwork-based overview of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Putumayo. Fighting between FARC dissidents and a hybrid “Frankenstein” group called Comandos de la Frontera has placed social leaders in the middle, while the coca economy booms and peace accord implementation flags.
  • Diana Bernal Ibáñez of the Colectivo Sociojurídico Orlando Fals Borda, which legally represents ethnic communities demanding prior consultation before aerial herbicide fumigation begins in coca-growing zones, wrote in El Espectador, “There are many factors that push populations to flee their territories, but none is as effective in forcibly displacing them as the arrival of glyphosate.” Thirty-five members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter to Colombia’s Constitutional Court demanding that the spray program’s environmental approval be suspended because communities in remote areas could not participate meaningfully during the pandemic. Twenty-one Colombian and international NGOs, including WOLA, asked the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to hold a hearing to review the fumigation program, which may be revived by June after a 2015 suspension due to public health concerns. During his April 25 mass, the maximum Catholic Church authority in Colombia, Bogotá Archbishop Luis José Rueda, warned, “The campesinado is dying, because this wolf of drug trafficking has come to destroy them in their abandonment and oblivion. The solution is not glyphosate.”
  • 10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
  • Sociologist Francisco Leal Buitrago, who has written often about civil-military relations during his long career, proposed nine strategic reforms in El Espectador, ranging from taking the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, to hiring more qualified defense ministers, to increasing the role of Congress and high courts in approving senior military promotions.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a statement “expressing its concern about violence in Cauca, especially the forced displacement of the population and the assassination of social leaders.”
  • Three children aged 11, 12, and 17 working as trash recyclers were murdered with machete blows in a marginal neighborhood of Quibdó, Chocó; authorities and civil society leaders believe they crossed an “invisible boundary” between neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs. One of the accused of massacring five minors in Cali’s majority Afro-descendant Llano Verde neighborhood says the August 2020 crime was a case of “social cleansing.”
Weekly border update: April 30, 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.
Aid is forthcoming for Central America
Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually on April 26 with the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, to discuss cooperation to address the causes of large-scale migration from his country. It was their second such meeting, following a conversation on March 30. “We want to work with you to address both the acute causes as well as the root causes in a way that will bring hope to the people of Guatemala that there will be an opportunity for them if they stay at home,” the vice president said in joint remarks before the meeting.
This distinction between “acute causes” and “root causes” is at the center of the Biden administration’s current thinking about how to assist Central America. The first category includes the effects of recent hurricanes, droughts, and the pandemic. The second includes poverty, climate change, corruption and poor governance, and “violence against women, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and Afro-descendants.”
Harris said she plans to visit Guatemala in June. “But from here to June,” Giammattei replied, “I believe that we should build a roadmap between government and government so that we can reach agreements so that we can then work on.”
Complicated partners
The vice president held a meeting April 27 with Guatemalan non-governmental leaders, and plans to have a call next week with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Harris has not spoken with, or announced plans to speak with, the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras.
The first, Nayib Bukele, has raised concerns about recent authoritarian behavior, and refused to meet with U.S. Special Envoy Ricardo Zúñiga during his April 7 visit to San Salvador. (Bukele had failed to get meetings with the brand-new Biden administration when he flew, with little advance notice, to pandemic-shuttered Washington at the beginning of February.) The second, Juan Orlando Hernández, was re-elected in a 2017 vote that was likely fraudulent, and is named as a co-conspirator in U.S. judicial actions against Honduran drug traffickers, including his brother who was sentencedto life in U.S. prison in March.
There are strong concerns about official corruption in Guatemala, too. A years-long backlash against anti-corruption reformers swept out a UN-backed international prosecutorial body (the CICIG) in 2019, and is now undermining the highest courts’ ability to hold accountable those who engage in graft or collude with organized crime. This month, the legislature’s leadership refused to swear in Gloria Porras, an anti-corruption judge, to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. She fled to the United States, while Giammattei’s chief of staff was swiftly sworn in to another seat on the court. The day of the Harris-Giammattei meeting, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two well-connected current and former Guatemalan congressional representatives.
Biden administration officials see a connection between corruption and the poverty and insecurity that drive migration. “[A]ddressing corruption is at the center of what the Biden administration has focused on in seeking to create those enabling conditions for broad-based improvement in Central America,” Zúñiga told reporters on April 22. Regional governments’ track record on corruption, then, will complicate working with them on root causes. “The governments are going to be part of that but, quite frankly, they’re probably going to be unwilling partners,” Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere director during Barack Obama’s first term, toldBloomberg.
This may mean carefully working around some elected leaders and executive-branch agencies. Zúñiga reiterated that an administration priority will be “supporting those within the countries—and that’s civil society as well as public servants—who are involved in efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption and impunity.” He added that the administration may coordinate this work with “an anti-corruption task force that is going to involve the Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, with the support of the Department of State.”
An April 28 edition of WOLA’s podcast discusses the complexities of working with Central America’s leaders on migration’s underlying causes.
Aid packages
To confront “acute causes” of migration, the White House announced April 27 that the U.S. government is reprogramming $310 million in current-year assistance to meet immediate humanitarian needs for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
  • About $104 million will come from the Department of State “to meet the immediate safety and protection needs of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and other vulnerable populations,” a fact sheet reads; this probably means it will come through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
  • $26 million will come from the Department of Defense “to increase its partnership activities in the region to provide essential health, education, and disaster relief services.”
  • $125 million will be USAID funding, mainly emergency food and agricultural assistance: $55 million for Honduras, $54 million for Guatemala, and $16 million for El Salvador.
  • The Department of Agriculture will provide an additional $55 million in food security assistance.
While details of the longer-term “root causes” aid package have yet to emerge, Zúñiga previewed that the 2022 budget request to Congress—which is likely to be submitted next week—will include $861 million for Central America. “It’s an initial payment on the $4 billion over four years that President Biden announced before coming into office,” he said. The administration envisions the money going to three areas: good governance and anti-corruption; economic development; and security and justice.
Another Guatemalan border task force
On April 26 Vice President Harris and President Giammattei agreed on another, less “root cause”-focused aid activity: U.S. support for a Guatemalan border security task force. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will send 16 trainers to Guatemala “to train local officials in strengthening border infrastructure,” Reuters reported. “The effort will be spearheaded on the Guatemalan side by the Division of Border Ports and Airports,” according to the Associated Press. This likely dovetails with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s April 12 disclosure that “Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route.” It’s less clear how—if at all—this “border task force” effort overlaps with the Obama administration’s past assistance to Guatemalan military-police-prosecutor border-zone “Inter-Agency Task Forces” created in 2013, a program that appears to have been abandoned.
Harris and Giammattei also reportedly agreed that the United States would help Guatemala build shelters for deported or expelled migrants, along with some assistance to assist deportees’ transition.
“Operation Sentinel”
Finally, on April 27 DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a stepped-up effort to target the smugglers who make possible most migrants’ journey through Mexico to the U.S. border. “We will identify the smugglers and their associates and employ a series of targeted actions and sanctions against them. We will have a broad approach and a strong one. It will include every authority in our arsenal,” Mayorkas told CNN and other reporters. Tools may include revoking visas and travel documents, and freezing assets and the ability to use U.S. financial institutions. “Operation Sentinel” will involve Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division (ICE-HSI), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the State Department, and, within the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
No other details about Operation Sentinel are yet available, so it’s not clear how the effort will be assured of targeting the infrastructure on which smuggling networks depend. Migrant smuggling is a very decentralized activity. While smugglers have to pay Mexico cartels to pass through their territory, they are not cartels themselves; they tend to be small and regional. “A Mexico based official” with ICE-HSI explained to the Los Angeles Times that “cartels make millions merely charging tolls, whereas low-level human smugglers work in ‘very disjointed cells.’”
These localized operations depend heavily on official corruption, for instance in order to pass easily through checkpoints on Mexican highways. It remains to be seen whether Operation Sentinel will make a dent in this corruption, or whether it will simply rack up actions against small-time smugglers. The Salvadoran investigative journalism website El Faro reported this week on an outcome that Operation Sentinel would do well to avoid: Salvadoran prosecutors have locked up a single mother who ran a small pupusa restaurant, a man who works as a private guard, and a farmer, charging them with smuggling because they discussed plans to join a migrant caravan on WhatsApp.
Big drop in unaccompanied children in CBP custody
In late March, amid rapidly increasing arrivals of unaccompanied children, U.S. border and migration agencies were estimating that, by the end of May, the government would need 34,100 to 35,500 beds to accommodate them. While things could always change, that projection now appears far too pessimistic.
Against nearly everyone’s expectations, unaccompanied child numbers stopped increasing in April. The month has seen a slow, modest, but real decline in Border Patrols encounters with unaccompanied kids, from an average of 489 per day during the last week of March to an average of 431 per day during April 25-28, according to CBP’s daily reports on unaccompanied child encounters and processing.
As new arrivals have eased, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has opened up many emergency facilities to house children while seeking to place them with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will live while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.
As a result, there has been a spectacular drop in the number of children spending many days crowded in Border Patrol’s inadequate, prison-line holding facilities as they await ORR placement. On March 28, 5,767 children were in Border Patrol custody. On April 28, that number had fallen 83 percent to 954, and the average time in custody had dropped to 28 hours, from 133 hours on March 28.
As grim images of children sleeping on floors fade away, the next challenge is to reduce the population in ORR’s shelters, which is still growing but much more slowly than it was during the first half of the month. This means quickly identifying and vetting the relatives or sponsors with whom children will live. During the last week of March, ORR was only discharging 245 children per day. By April 25-28 it had increased that rate to 403 per day.
This is important progress, but even at reduced numbers, as noted above, CBP is still encountering 431 kids per day, so the overall number of children in U.S. government custody—in the low 20,000s for the past two weeks—continues to edge slightly upward.
As ORR placement capacity increases, we expect this “total in U.S. custody” number to decline—unless, for some reason, unaccompanied child arrivals at the border start increasing again in May. It is impossible to predict whether that will happen, or whether April’s gradual declines will continue.
After children are placed with families, of course, the U.S. government’s woefully inadequate asylum system presents another bottleneck: what is usually a years-long wait for hearing dates and decisions from badly backlogged, overwhelmed immigration courts.
Reactions to the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act”
Four border-state legislators from both parties and both houses of Congress introduced a bill on April 22 seeking, in their words, “to respond to the surge in migrants coming across our southern border.” The “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act” (S. 1358) is sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), and by Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Tony Gonzales (R-Texas).
Among its provisions are:
  • Creating at least four processing centers to receive newly apprehended, mostly asylum-seeking, migrants.
Processing capacity is urgently needed so that asylum seekers may approach ports of entry, and request protection, without having to spend weeks or months on waiting lists in Mexican border towns. However, critics of the legislation point out that the “processing” the bill proposes would include “credible fear screening interviews and potentially full asylum interviews…conducted within 72 hours—an absurd time frame for life-and-death adjudications,” as Human Rights First describes it. “While this bill includes some positive provisions,” an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) response warns, “any proposal that further increases reliance on Customs and Border Protection in the asylum and detention process is a step in the wrong direction, given the agency’s record of abuse.”
  • Authorizing DHS to carry out pilot programs to speed up asylum screening (credible fear determinations) and adjudication.
  • During “irregular migration influx events,” allowing immigration courts to move recently apprehended asylum seekers’ cases to the top of their dockets.
Critics of the legislation warn that past “pilot programs” and “rocket docket” efforts badly weakened due process guarantees for asylum seekers. During the Trump administration, CBP implemented two pilot programs, Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP), that turned around quick asylum decisions—nearly all of them rejections—in a matter of days while families remained in CBP custody with no meaningful access to counsel. Past docket-adjusting initiatives “lead to massive due process violations with few, if any, gains in efficiency,” warned the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
  • Raising vetting standards for family members or sponsors before placing unaccompanied children with them.
A concern about this provision is that it could backlog ORR’s already struggling efforts to place children with families, forcing them to spend even more time in the agency’s shelter system—including in ORR’s thrown-together emergency facilities currently in heavy use.
  • Improving legal orientation and access to counsel (though not paying for counsel).
  • Improving transportation of asylum-seeking migrants and coordination with NGOs and receiving communities.
  • Hiring 150 more immigration judge teams (there are currently about 520), 250 Border Patrol processing coordinators (non-law enforcement personnel who specialize in processing of asylum seekers), and 300 asylum officers at USCIS, among other personnel.
  • Improving congressional oversight with new reporting requirements.
The legislation’s critics are generally supportive of these points, with some caveats.
S. 1358’s endorsers are largely business groups: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Business Immigration Coalition, Texas Association of Business, New American Economy, Americans for Prosperity, and The LIBRE Initiative. The National Immigration Forum, too, calls it “a positive step that bodes well for the chances for immigration reforms this year.”
Groups that quickly lined up in opposition to the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act include the ACLUHuman Rights First, the Women’s Refugee CommissionChurch World Service, the Florence Project, and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Links
  • Mexico’s Interior Department released data showing that migration forces detained 14,254 undocumented people in March 2021, the most since August 2019. 51 percent were from Honduras, 36 percent from Guatemala, 7 percent from El Salvador, and 6 percent from other countries. Along migrant routes in southern Mexico, shelters are full, turning people away amid COVID-19 capacity restrictions. Meanwhile, a government human rights body reported that at least 2,000 migrants were reported as disappeared in Mexican territory in 2020.
  • Guatemalan President Giammattei is to travel to Mexico on May 3 and meet with Mexican President López Obrador the following day. López Obrador indicated that the discussion “is related to the next call he will have with [U.S. Vice President] Harris” next week.
  • An investigation by the Los Angeles Times’s Molly O’Toole documents how the “Title 42” pandemic policy, which expels Central American migrants back into Mexico, has been an enormous boon to kidnappers and other organized crime bands that prey on them in Mexican border communities. At the Dallas Morning News, Dianne Solís and Alfredo Corchado report on the previously unthinkable, but now widespread, practice of expelling Central American families with children into high-crime Mexican border towns in the middle of the night.
  • The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reports on migrants who were kidnapped after the Trump administration sent them to Mexican border towns to await their U.S. asylum hearings under the “Remain in Mexico” program. As their captivity forced them to miss their U.S. hearing dates, they are now absurdly blocked from applying for asylum. Syracuse University’s TRAC public records project meanwhile reports that people enrolled in Remain in Mexico speak 40 different languages.
  • The sheriff of Harris County, Texas, Ed González, is the Biden administration’s nominee to direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). González, whose county includes Houston, has criticized aggressive ICE tactics that target migrants with no criminal records.
  • The New York Times posted a video along with data analysis finding that “ICE detention facilities had an average infection rate five times that of prisons and 20 times that of the general population.” The Times elsewhere reported that CBP is releasing asylum-seeking migrant families into U.S. border communities without testing them for the virus, leaving that up to private charities.
  • 10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
  • At Texas Monthly, Aaron Nelsen reports on migrant smugglers’ widespread use of simple ladders to defeat the border wall. Meanwhile local news in Arizona reports that construction equipment is “collecting dust” as the Biden administration’s wall-building pause continues.
  • Arizona Public Media published a video short about members of the Hia C-ed O’odham nation who resisted border wall construction on their lands in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, including the ecologically fragile Quitobaquito Springs, in 2020.
  • 92 academics from the United States and Mexico signed a letter proposing six practical recommendations for next steps that both countries should take to restore asylum and improve logistics.
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching an internal review to weed out white supremacy and extremism among its workforce.
Latin America-related online events this week
Tuesday, May 4
  • 11:00 at Zoom: Autonomía estratégica en América Latina y Europa: ¿por qué y cómo? (RSVP required).
  • 12:00-1:00 at thedialogue.org: 100 Days of the Biden-Harris Administration – What Lies Ahead for US-Mexico Ties? (RSVP required).
  • 1:00-2:00 at csis.org: Gender Equality and Sustainability in Panama: A Conversation with Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes (RSVP required).
Wednesday, May 5
Thursday, May 6
  • 10:00-11:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia: Opportunities and Challenges (RSVP required).
  • 2:00 at homeland.house.gov: Hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Management, and Accountability on Stakeholder Perspectives on Addressing Migration Push Factors.
  • 2:00-3:00 at thedialogue.org: Healthcare Investment & Economic Recovery in the Americas (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-4:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Mexico’s Mid-Term Elections: What’s at Stake and What to Expect (RSVP required).
Some tweets that made me laugh this week
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