Updates from Adam Isacson (January 14, 2024)

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As of Thursday, I'm back from a week of post-New Year vacation in Belize, where an old friend from grad school now owns a small resort on the Caribbean. (Some of us made better life choices than others, clearly.)

I'm back now and ready to go, but things were not quiet while I was away. (I'm barely caught up on the explosion of organized-crime violence that beset Ecuador on Tuesday.) As I've been away, this message has a bit less content than usual, and some of that was posted around the New Year holiday, which feels like an age ago.

This edition has no weekly Border Update—those will resume next Friday, though daily updates have resumed already at our "Border Oversight" site. See below for some links about civil-military relations in the region and to upcoming events.

This Is a Tragedy, and the State of Texas Bears Responsibility

This is incredibly serious.

Seeking to score political points, the State of Texas has barred the federal Border Patrol from a swath of the Rio Grande where a lot of drownings happen.

Yesterday, an adult and two children drowned. Texas failed to respond to Border Patrol’s urgent warnings.

“This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility,” says Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who often leans right on border issues.

Following the January 9 wave of criminal attacks and violence throughout Ecuador, President Daniel Noboa has declared a state of “internal conflict” and has deployed soldiers throughout the nation’s streets. Some experts warn that using soldiers as police on a long-term or semi-permanent basis threatens human rights, weakens democratic civil-military relations, and hasn’t worked against organized crime in most places that it has been tried. Noboa’s move, though, is popular as citizens deal with the shock of the January 9 attacks.

Argentina‘s new president, Javier Milei, forced at least 23 of the country’s 35 active generals into retirement, the largest purge since the country’s 1983 transition to democracy. Milei is moving fast to move the armed forces into policing and public security roles, which would reverse reforms of the country’s democratic transition and of the Kirchner presidency of the 2000s. Milei and his security minister, Patricia Bullrich, are pointing to the violence in Ecuador to justify their push to militarize policing.

Mexico‘s Proceso magazine found that military personnel assigned to the country’s new National Guard have been embroiled in many cases of indiscipline, including attacks on fellow personnel and alcohol and drug use. Morale appears to be low among soldiers whom the López Obrador government has assigned to be super-policemen: army and navy sources say that “there is excessive stress in the National Guard because the elements are forced to perform functions that are not theirs, and for which they are not prepared, since they only received four weeks’ training, which is insufficient to be in charge of public security. In addition, most of them have junior high school or high school as their highest level of education.” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to seek legislative ways to place the National Guard under the military’s command, despite a Supreme Court decision stopping that from happening.

Mexico relaunched Mexicana Airlines on December 26 with a flight from Mexico City to Tulum. The airline is now fully controlled by the country’s armed forces.

A team of researchers from Mexico City’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana published a book contending that the National Guard is being deployed to put down community protests against extractive economic projects like logging and mining.

Peruvian President Dina Boluarte named a new armed forces chief. When he headed Peru‘s army, Gen. David Ojeda repeatedly sought to avoid testifying before prosecutors investigating abuses committed during a wave of protests against Boluarte’s late 2022 arrival in power. Gen. Ojeda reportedly referred to the protests as “subversive social violence.”

The head of Honduras‘s Military Public Order Police (PMOP), which has been tasked with managing prisons, called for a purge of the institution after a military prison director in El Paraíso was caught trying to bring in cash to hand out to inmates who belong to the Barrio 18 gang.

Reporteros de Investigación profiled retired Honduran colonel Elías Melgar Urbina, who “has held several hats in Xiomara Castro’s government,” including some related to the military and human rights, despite serious allegations of past involvement in human rights abuse.

Eight judges in Colombia‘s military justice system have been fired in just over a year due to alleged corruption.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro left generals confused by several last-minute changes to end-of-year promotion lists and unit assignments.

Bolivia‘s Congress was once again unable to approve a list of senior military and police promotions. Opposition legislators claim that the list is politicized.

La Tercera interviewed Gen. Paula Carrasco, an air force officer who is now the first woman to reach the rank of general in Chile‘s armed forces.

“Latin America’s armed forces are no longer irrelevant,” which increases the still mostly remote possibility of inter-state conflict in the Americas, the Economist contended.

(Events that I know of, anyway. All times are U.S. Eastern.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

  • 1:00-2:00 at quincyinst.org: Demilitarizing the U.S.-Mexico Relationship (RSVP required).
  • 4:30 at the Atlantic Council and atlanticcouncil.org: Setting the US-Caribbean agenda with The Bahamas Foreign Affairs Minister, Hon. Frederick Mitchell (RSVP required).

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Thursday, January 18, 2024

At Least 545,000 People—Many From Outside the Americas—Migrated Through Honduras in 2023

(posted January 3)

As we noted in a June report, Honduras keeps a reasonably accurate count of migrants transiting its territory, because it requires people to register with the government in order to have permission to board a bus. A minority travel with smugglers and don’t register, but most do.

Honduras also reports the nationalities of “irregular” migrants in something close to real time, so here’s what in-transit migration looked like through December.

Data table

The top 15 nationalities transiting Honduras during December were:

  1. Venezuela 13,803 (32% of 42,637 total)
  2. Cuba 8,997 (21%)
  3. Guinea 3,558 (8%)
  4. Ecuador 3,324 (8%)
  5. Haiti 3,001 (7%)
  6. China 2,121 (5%)
  7. India 1,472 (3%)
  8. Colombia 1,461 (3%)
  9. Senegal 706 (2%)
  10. Chile (children of Haitians) 456 (1%)
  11. Afghanistan 325 (1%)
  12. Vietnam 325 (1%)
  13. Peru 305 (1%)
  14. Brazil 249 (some children of Haitians) (1%)
  15. Angola 222 (1%)

The top 15 nationalities during all of 2023 were:

  1. Venezuela 228,889 (42% of 545,364 total)
  2. Cuba 85,969 (16%)
  3. Haiti 82,249 (15%)
  4. Ecuador 46,086 (8%)
  5. Colombia 13,136 (2%)
  6. Guinea 12,902 (2%)
  7. China 12,184 (2%)
  8. Senegal 8,964 (2%)
  9. Mauritania 5,816 (1%)
  10. Uzbekistan 5,153 (1%)
  11. India 4,366 (1%)
  12. Chile (children of Haitians) 3,004 (1%)
  13. Egypt 2,845 (1%)
  14. Afghanistan 2,729 (1%)
  15. Angola 2,640 (0.5%)

A few things are notable about this data:

  1. Nationalities from Asia and Africa are heavily represented. The Americas made up just 8 of December’s top 15 countries, and 6 of 2023’s top 15 countries. The situation in the Darién Gap is similar: only 7 of the top 15 nationalities counted by Panamanian authorities during the first 11 months of 2023 were Latin American or Caribbean.
  2. The total is similar to that measured in the Darién Gap. Panama’s Public Security Ministry reported on Monday that a stunning 520,085 migrants passed through the Darien Gap in 2023. Honduras reported a similarly stunning 545,364. Both are more than double 2022’s totals.
  3. Honduras’s total is greater than the Darién Gap, even though some migrants don’t register, because it includes many migrants who arrived by air in Nicaragua. Honduras’s neighbor to the south lies north of the Darién Gap, making it unnecessary to take that treacherous route, and does not require visas of visitors from most of the world. A growing number of people from Cuba, Haiti, and other continents have been taking circuitous commercial air routes, or often charter planes like one halted in France two weeks ago, to arrive in Managua and then travel overland to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of the increase in migration through Honduras reflects the growth of that route—especially those from African countries, whose numbers declined in the Darién Gap because Nicaragua presented a safer, shorter alternative. (Darién Gap travelers from outside the Americas often fly first to Ecuador or Brazil.)

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from December

(posted December 30)

David Tarazona, Jose Guarnizo, Coltan, Oro y Pistas Clandestinas: El Botin Con el Que Grupos Armados Desangran al Guainia (Voragine (Colombia), Monday, December 11, 2023).

In environmentally fragile Guainía, Colombia, the ELN and FARC dissidents dominate illicit mining of coltan, “an essential component in the production of the electronic devices we use every day.”

Sarah Kinosian, How a Factory City in Wisconsin Fed Military-Grade Weapons to a Mexican Cartel (Reuters, Reuters, Saturday, December 9, 2023).

How Racine, Wisconsin, a small industrial city between Chicago and Milwaukee, became a major vector for supplying high-caliber weapons to Mexico’s hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Hector Silva Avalos, El Asunto Chino: Nayib Bukele Negocia Red 5g Con Estados Unidos y Obtiene Silencio por la Reeleccion (Primera Parte) (Prensa Comunitaria (Guatemala), Wednesday, December 6, 2023).

How the U.S. State Department “gave up on its eagerness to publicly complain about” El Salvador’s increasingly authoritarian president, Nayib Bukele. “This is a capitulation,” a former diplomat said.

The Moskitia: The Honduran Jungle Drowning in Cocaine (InsightCrime, Friday, December 1, 2023).

“The region’s Indigenous Miskito people have been left trapped in desperate poverty, and are caught between the traffickers and an indifferent state. But some are now preparing to fight back.”

Lauren Villagran, ‘Where Is the Humanity?’ Migrant Deaths Soaring at el Paso-Juarez Border With Few Ways to Document Them (The El Paso Times, Thursday, November 30, 2023).

“One hundred and forty-nine migrants died in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector in the 12 months through Sept. 30, soaring from six migrant deaths recorded six years ago.” And CBP is late on its 2022 and 2023 reports documenting migrant deaths.

December 2023 Set a New U.S.-Mexico Border Monthly Migration Record

(posted December 29)

Border Patrol shares monthly data about its apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border since October 1999. As this chart shows, during that time, the number of migrant apprehensions in a single month has never exceeded 225,000. (224,370 in May 2022, 222,018 in December 2022, 220,063 in March 2000.)

Data table

That threshold has now been passed. CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Galvez reported yesterday, “U.S. Border Patrol agents took into custody more than 225,000 migrants who crossed the southern border—in between official crossings—during the first 27 days of December, according to the preliminary Department of Homeland Security [DHS] statistics.”

(This number does not include approximately 50,000 more migrants who come each month to ports of entry—official border crossings—usually with appointments.)

Montoya-Galvez shared Border Patrol’s daily averages, showing modest decline in migrant arrivals over the past week:

The current spike in migration peaked before Christmas, during the week starting on Dec. 14 and ending on Dec. 20, when Border Patrol averaged 9,773 daily apprehensions, according to the data. On several days that week, the agency processed more than 10,000 migrants in 24 hours.

Unlawful crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border have decreased this week, but remain at historically high levels. On Wednesday, Border Patrol processed 7,759 migrants, the statistics show.

In his morning press conference yesterday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shared this slide of data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency), depicting CBP’s monthly migrant encounters through the first 17 days of December. This slide appears to combine Border Patrol apprehensions with CBP’s port-of-entry encounters, so the numbers are a bit higher.

Combining encounters with migrants at the ports of entry and between them, the chart shows a daily average of 9,787 people per day over December 1-17, increasing to 10,187 per day over December 1-21.

The chart shows a sharp increase in daily arrivals of Venezuelan citizens, whose numbers dropped in October and November after the Biden administration’s October 5 announcement that it was resuming deportation flights to Caracas.

There have since been 11 such flights, DHS reported on December 27. It appears that despite the (not huge) risk of being on one of these roughly one-per-week flights, Venezuelan asylum seekers are again coming in greater numbers.

(this is a bit truncated because I was away until Thursday)

Gerardo Lissardy, En Ecuador "Si Siguen Metiendo Gente a la Carcel Van a Seguir Alimentando las Redes del Crimen Organizado" (BBC News Mundo, Thursday, January 11, 2024).

Jorge Núñez, an expert on Ecuadorian prisons, warns in an interview about the risk of using the military to fight the crime wave: "If we learn from Mexico and Colombia, the militarization of these problems generates more deaths."

Tirana Hassan, The Human Rights System Is Under Threat: A Call to Action (Human Rights Watch, Thursday, January 11, 2024).

Human Rights Watch has published its behemoth annual world report.

Kristina Cooke, Mica Rosenberg, Ted Hesson, The Toll on Migrants of a Free Bus North From the Border (Reuters, Reuters, Thursday, January 11, 2024).

The Republican-led state of Texas said it has spent more than $100 million since April 2022 to bus tens of thousands of migrants who recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to Chicago, New York, Denver and other Democratic-led cities

And finally

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Jamie Larson