Updates from Adam Isacson (February 12, 2024)

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This is another long one, looking back on a really eventful but exasperating week for border and migration policy here in Washington. That's all in the Weekly Border Update below, and it's too irritating even to bother summarizing up here in the intro.

In addition to the Border Update, this one has new data from the Darién Gap, a podcast about Guatemala's tenuous but hopeful political moment, an interview about the border, and some links from the past month about civil-military relations in the Americas. And of course, upcoming events and some recommended readings.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Senate kills border deal, impeachment goes down, migration drops

  • Read this week's edition here. See past weekly updates here.
  • For 2024 - read our daily border links posts here. You can subscribe to the daily border links list here.


  • Senate kills border deal

By a vote 0f 49-50, the Senate on February 7 refused to advance debate on a big spending package that included historic new limits on the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, among other measures. The limits were a response to Republican legislators’ demands and the product of two and a half months of negotiations. Most Republican senators walked away from the deal, arguing that the agreed migration limits do not go far enough. The Senate is now considering a bill with almost no border content, though there could be border-related amendments.

  • Secretary Mayorkas avoids impeachment

By a stunning 214-216 margin, the Republican-majority U.S. House of Representatives rejected an effort to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. While all Democrats voted “no,” House Republican leaders failed to convince enough of their members that what they regard to be Mayorkas’s mismanagement of the border constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” They may try again.

  • Border Patrol apprehensions fell by half in January, but may be increasing again

Leaked data point to a 50 percent drop in Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants in January, after reaching record levels in December. January appears to have seen the third-smallest amount of migration of the Biden administration’s thirty-six full months. Reasons probably include rumors, seasonal patterns, and Mexican forces’ stepped-up migrant interdiction. In two busy Border Patrol sectors that report data, though, migration numbers started to increase again during the second half of January.

Read the whole thing here.

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Darién Gap Migration Through January

At some point last month, the 500,000th Venezuelan migrant of the 2020s crossed the Darién Gap. 61 percent of everyone who has migrated through this region in this decade has been a citizen of Venezuela.

Data table

The latest data from Panama show that 36,001 people migrated through the treacherous Darién Gap region in January. That’s an increase from December, reversing four months of declines. But it is still the fourth-smallest monthly total of the last twelve months.

At some point last month, the 500,000th Venezuelan migrant of the 2020s crossed the Darién Gap. 61 percent of everyone who has migrated through this region in this decade has been a citizen of Venezuela.

Actually, to be precise: the 500,000th Venezuelan migrant since 2022 crossed the Darién Gap last month. Out of 503,805 Venezuelan migrants between January 2000 and January 2024, 500,917 came in the last 25 months. There were about 30 million people living in Venezuela: so 1 out of every 60 has walked this nightmare jungle route. In 25 months.

The 30,000th Chinese citizen of the 2020s crossed the Darién last month. A year ago (after January 2023), the decade’s total migration from China was just 2,998 people.

WOLA Podcast: A Tumultuous Presidential Inauguration Heralds a New Chapter in Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Struggle

Here’s a podcast about Guatemala’s new president and the challenges he faces. I recorded it last Wednesday with Ana María and Jo-Marie from WOLA. This is a lively one, and I think I’m definitely getting better at sound editing. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

After relentless attempts to block his inauguration and a nine-hour delay, Bernardo Arévalo, who ran for Guatemala’s presidency on an anti-corruption platform, was sworn into office minutes after midnight on January 14.

In this highly educational episode, WOLA Director for Central America Ana María Méndez Dardón is joined by WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt. Both were in Guatemala witnessing the high-tension event that was Arévalo’s inauguration. They cover the frustration, excitement, and symbolism that characterized the day, while also diving into a host of topics surrounding the state of Guatemala’s democracy.

They assess the main threats to Arevalo’s leadership and the goals of his party, Movimiento Semilla, particularly those related to addressing corruption and impunity. Ana Maria and Jo-Marie touch on the distinct roles of Guatemalan indigenous communities, the United States, and the private sector. They describe the hope that Arevalo represents for the Guatemalan people in terms of security, justice, and the rule of law, while identifying the harsh realities of deeply embedded corruption a recalcitrant high court and attorney general.

Read Ana María’s January 9 commentary, Ushering in a New Period: Bernardo Arévalo’s Opportunities and Challenges to Restoring Democracy in Guatemala, for a readable, in-depth analysis of these topics.

Download the podcast episode’s .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

At the Border Chronicle: Fight Corruption and Invest in Asylum: A Q&A with Adam Isacson

I enjoyed this conversation with journalist Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle, a newsletter and outlet she runs with fellow border-based author Todd Miller. She did an amazing job of condensing and simplifying what was a much longer conversation full of policy-nerd-speak.

I would invest a lot more in our asylum system. And I’d get rid of the 1990-era caps on who can come from which country to get residency here. I’d also vastly expand the temporary work permits. So, people can come work, and not just for farm labor but also for other skilled work. I’d also end corruption, which is a huge part of why people migrate. If I were doing foreign policy, we can certainly do more to uphold and give resources to the people fighting corruption and fighting impunity, and justice systems and NGOs and even the reformers inside the military. They should have our most high-profile backing, but so often they don’t.

Read the whole thing here.

As part of Ecuador’s crackdown on organized crime, the armed forces have intervened in 17 prisons, with troops still present in 10 of them.

Troops are also stationed along highways, at airports, and at 10 Pacific seaports.

In coming months, Ecuadorians will vote on this referendum question: “Do you agree with allowing the complementary support of the Armed Forces in the functions of the National Police to combat organized crime, partially reforming the Constitution?”

After his tumultuous January 14 swearing-in, Guatemala’s reformist president, Bernardo Arévalo, swore in a new high command and paid respectful visits to the country’s Army and Navy. Arévalo, who as an academic had published at least seven books about security and Guatemala’s army, said that the Army will continue in its role of supporting civilian security forces against organized crime.

The Arévalo government promoted four female army officers to command positions in non-combat units.

In Argentina, new president Javier Milei followed the December firing of 22 Army generals with the forced retirement of 16 Navy admirals—more than half of all officers of that rank.

Milei’s budget cuts include nonpayment of installments of a previously promised raise for military officers. Under current pay scales, Pagina12 reported, an army general earns about US$350 per month less than a police commissioner.

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that the Milei government is working on a plan to deepen the armed forces’ support for police in border security and fighting organized crime. Since its transition to democracy, Argentina has been reluctant to give the military new internal civilian security roles.

Mexico’s Supreme Court had ruled last year that, contrary to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s wishes, the country’s new National Guard must not remain under the command of its defense ministry (SEDENA). López Obrador called two of the justices “traitors.”

As of January 1, the Guard was to come under the security ministry (SSPC). A January 6, 2024 document circulated to guardsmen challenged the Court, stating that while the National Guard is under the SSPC’s “operational” command, it remains under SEDENA’s “administrative” command.

On February 5 President López Obrador submitted a series of proposed legal reforms, among them a constitutional amendment that would place the National Guard under SEDENA’s control.

A military court has now released from pre-trial detention 13 of 16 Mexican Army soldiers who allegedly carried out an extrajudicial execution of five civilians in May 2023 in Nuevo Laredo. The incident was caught on video.

Eight of thirteen Mexican military personnel allegedly linked to the 2014 forced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero will be released, as a federal judge lifted their pre-trial detention.

A hard-hitting report from the Guerrero-based NGO Tlachinollan documents how President López Obrador has sought to exonerate the military of the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa teacher’s college students, adopting and promoting the armed forces’ version of events.

Armed with sticks, stones, and machetes, residents of rural Chicomuselo, Chiapas, blocked Mexico’s military from entering their communities, demanding that the armed forces first evict organized crime from nearby areas that they already occupy. Communities in the region have been forcibly displacing to escape violent competition between Jalisco and Sinaloa cartel fighters.

In late January, the Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano called on the government to modify a 9-year-old decree authorizing the military to use deadly force to control demonstrations. The organization also called for due process after the late-January demotion and expulsion of 33 military personnel on allegations of “conspiracy.”

On February 9, authorities detained the organization’s director, Rocío San Miguel, in the Caracas airport. As of this writing, her whereabouts are unknown.

A judge in Colombia ruled that retired Army Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita is guilty of ordering the murder of a demobilized FARC guerrilla, Dímar Pérez, in the Catatumbo region, in a high-profile 2019 case.

Colombia’s Marines swore in their first 60 female members following three months of training.

The former commander of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. Ricardo Martínez, voiced gratitude to ex-president Sebastián Piñera for having listened to his advice and abstained from sending the military into the streets to confront protesters in 2019. “I will always be grateful to him for not having taken the Armed Forces out of it, because we were not in favor of it.” Piñera died in a helicopter crash on February 6.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, federal Border Patrol agents have had their access to part of the border blocked by National Guardsmen—trained soldiers whose patches say “U.S. Army” on them, but currently at the command of Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Some are calling on President Joe Biden to “federalize” the Texas National Guard, taking them out of Abbott’s command. In an analysis, Joseph Nunn of the Brennan Center for Justice acknowledged that doing so “would certainly pass legal muster” but should be an absolute last resort.

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

Monday, February 12, 2024

  • 2:00 at the Atlantic Council and online: Countering China and Russia in Latin America and the Caribbean (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-6:00 at Georgetown University and online: Seminar ‘Why does Latin America matter?’ (RSVP required).
  • 4:00-5:30 at Columbia University Zoom: Bukele’s El Salvador and its Regional Implications on Democracy and Security: A Post-electoral Discussion (RSVP required).

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

  • 10:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: A new era for US-Guatemala economic relations (RSVP required).
  • 1:00 at IBERO online: Presentación del libro “El negocio del crimen. El crecimiento del delito, los mercados ilegales y la violencia en América Latina” (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-4:00 at csis.org: Venezuela’s Deteriorating Electoral Conditions: A Conversation with María Corina Machado (RSVP required).

Thursday, February 15, 2024

  • 9:30-11:00 at the Wilson Center: A Conversation With Mexico City Mayoral Candidate Salomón Chertorivski (RSVP required).
  • 11:00-12:00 at wola.org: Mexico could elect its first female president. What would this mean for human rights and the feminist movement? (RSVP required).
  • 2:00 in Room 2200 Rayburn House Office Building and online: Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee on The Agents of Antisemitism in Latin America.
  • 2:00 in Room 2154 Rayburn House Office Building and online: Hearing of the House Oversight National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on The Consequences of Catch and Release at the Border.
  • 3:00-4:00 at csis.org: Report Launch: China’s Role in Democratic Backsliding in Latin America and the Caribbean (RSVP required).

Friday, February 16, 2024

  • 10:00-11:30 at wola.org: From Barbados to Democratic Elections: Will Venezuela Meet the Challenge? (RSVP required).
  • 12:30-1:45 at the Inter-American Dialogue and online: Perspectives on Remittances in 2024 (RSVP required).
  • 4:15 at the Atlantic Council and online: The Bahamian foreign minister on shaping US-Caribbean ties (RSVP required).

Ioan Grillo, The Mexican Side of the Border Crisis (UnHerd, Monday, February 12, 2024).

Mexico-based Journalist Ioan Grillo published highlights of interviews with people in Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas—then crossed to Eagle Pass to witness a small right-wing "convoy" and an event featuring Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Illia Novikov, Manuel Rueda, Ukraine Needs More Troops Fighting Russia. Hardened Professionals From Colombia Are Helping (Associated Press, Associated Press, Friday, February 9, 2024).

Colombians with military experience are fighting in Ukraine, where a soldier's monthly salary is nearly four times what an experienced drill sergeant makes in Colombia.

David C. Adams, Jeff Ernst, Murder, Corruption, and Drugs: The Ledgers That Could Sink Honduras' Ex-President (InsightCrime, Friday, February 9, 2024).

Nery Orlando López Sanabria was killed in prison after ledgers linking him to drug transactions involving Honduran ex-president Juan orlando Hernández were discovered; these ledgers are key evidence in Hernández's upcoming trial in New York.

Veronica Martinez, Cuando los Cruces Ilegales a Estados Unidos Superan las Citas por Cbp One (La Verdad (Ciudad Juarez Mexico), Thursday, February 8, 2024).

In Ciudad Juárez, migrants from Venezuela and elsewhere struggle with the CBP One app, highlighting the digital divide, bureaucratic bottlenecks, and the humanitarian implications of technological approaches to managing migration.

Alex Papadovassilakis, Jody Garcia, Steven Dudley, Ricardo Mendez Ruiz and the Art of Lawfare in Guatemala (InsightCrime, Wednesday, February 7, 2024).

Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, head of the right-wing Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), challenges the new government of Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo, after years of targeting judges, prosecutors, and anti-corruption crusaders.

An Analysis of the Senate Border Bill (American Immigration Council, Wednesday, February 7, 2024).

The Senate "border pact" is dead, but we're likely to see many of its components again in future legislation. Here, AIC produced a compact, contextualized analysis.

And Finally

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Jamie Larson