Happy mid-January. It’s over 70 degrees this weekend in Washington, because that’s what our climate does now.
A memo and a podcast
Here are two bits of “content” from the past week:
- The Colombian government issued a draft decree that would re-start a U.S.-backed program of airplanes spraying herbicides over areas where people grow coca. The herbicide they’d use, glyphosate, is very controversial because of likely links to cancer. The decree is 20 pages of very legalistic Colombian Spanish. On Wednesday, I published an overview of what’s in it.
- Venezuela had a tumultuous week (again). The National Assembly, the only part of the government under opposition control, met January 5 to start a new session and elect its president for the year, whom we all expected to be Juan Guaidó again. But in an especially ham-fisted move, the Maduro government sent the security forces to prevent opposition legislators from entering the chamber, and got a more compliant president elected without a quorum. I needed to talk to someone who could make sense of what is going on, and WOLA’s director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey, did exactly that in a podcast recorded on Thursday.
And on a totally unrelated note, my top 30 favorite songs of 2019 are here. The top 10 that I picked are:
- “Stay High” by Brittany Howard.
- “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend.
- “Her Own Heart” by Hatchie.
- “Summer Girl” by Haim.
- “I’ve Been Dazed” by Michael Kiwanuka.
- “Stress” by Tycho.
- “Rocket Fuel (Feat. De La Soul)” by DJ Shadow.
- “Love” by Sleater-Kinney.
- “The 2nd Most Beautiful Girl in the World” by Snail Mail.
- “Confessions” by Sudan Archives.
Annual planning time...
Meanwhile, I’ve been doing some thinking about the work ahead for the year, as WOLA goes into its annual strategic planning process.
New armed groups will keep growing this year, in both number of people and number of groups. These will mostly be organized crime groups, though they’ll control territory and substitute for the government just like a more “political” insurgency would. They’ll also collude with government officials because there’s a lot of money to be made from drug trafficking, illicit mining, extortion, and other sources. They’re going to keep moving into lands that aren’t theirs, as we’re seeing in Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities right now in the battered municipality of Bojayá, Chocó, where 300 paramilitaries have been on a new year’s offensive.
A weak government of the right is going to be increasingly challenged in 2020 by protesters and others who believe that Colombia’s political and economic system is working against them.
Relations with the Maduro government in Venezuela will continue to be poor, while Colombian armed groups will operate with great freedom on Venezuelan soil. Watch for tensions along the border between the two countries. Inter-state conflict is still more unlikely than likely, but if it happens, it will probably begin with a serious incident along that border.
If (as appears likely), the Duque government re-starts aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, expect coca-growers, who are better organized than in the past, to mount big protests and road blockages.
Whether armed groups, fed-up protesters, fumigation resisters, or issues on the border, expect the Duque government’s response to involve the 450,000-plus police, soldiers, and other military personnel in Colombia’s Defense Ministry. This is a military that has taken big steps backward on human rights in the past year, with several human rights and corruption scandals. The latest is on the cover of Colombia’s Semana magazine this weekend: revelations that military intelligence has been spying on human rights defenders, activists, legislators, and even other officers.
And meanwhile, as all this happens, every two or three days a social leader or human rights defender will be murdered somewhere in the country. Systematically. Just in the first 10 days of 2020, staff at the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted ten murders.
Colombia’s 2016 peace accord isn’t a perfect document, but it holds out promise for a better way of dealing with many of these problems. The Duque government has made progress—too slow, but some forward motion—on reintegrating ex-combatants and investing in a small number of post-conflict areas. But Colombia remains very far from seizing the potential that this accord represents: for undoing a history of government neglect in vast territories, for deepening democracy in regions that are de facto authoritarian, for recognizing the rights of marginalized populations, for honoring the conflict’s victims, and for permanently reducing illicit crop cultivation.
This year I expect to increase my reporting on what is happening, as there’s a real lack of frequently updated information in English. The areas I most want to focus on are the Colombian government’s presence (or lack) in abandoned rural areas; crop eradication; and the U.S. security role. I will also keep an eye on the security situation at the Venezuela border, but only have a bit of budget for fieldwork.
One of the main tools I plan to use for distributing that information is our semi-neglected colombiapeace.org website, which we used heavily during the negotiations but not as much lately. I’ll be giving that resource a thorough overhaul between now and the end of March, with many new features.
At the border:
The situation is extremely grim right now for migrants trying legally to seek protection in the United States, as I described in El Paso last month. The Trump administration has hardened the border in all the wrong ways, sending in soldiers and building walls to stop kids and families, while cross-border flows of opioids, meth, and cocaine keep increasing. And the White House has taken nearly all of these cruel, erratic steps without obtaining, or needing, congressional approval.
Though we mostly stopped Trump’s border wall in Congress, courts have so far allowed him to use presidential emergency powers to take money from other priorities, mostly defense, to build it. (Congress’s constitutional power to appropriate funds has eroded alarmingly.) I’ll continue this year to make evidence-based arguments about the stupidity of building walls in parts of the border where few people even try to cross. I’ll also do more to help explain, in a very current way, the confusing state of wall-building right now: where it’s going up, who is building it, with what block of money, and where that money stands in the courts. I’ll also begin advocating to have walls taken down in the most environmentally and culturally sensitive areas, in the first few months of a new administration.
I’ll also be keeping a closer eye on the dangerous use of the U.S. military on the border, something that nobody is reporting on regularly right now. And I want to do more work this year on the organizational and managerial culture at agencies like CBP, Border Patrol, and ICE, which are accused of human rights abuses more often than most U.S. military or law enforcement agencies. Why do officers and agents go along so often when placed into dehumanizing situations? Why do "good" agents so often "circle the wagons" around bad behavior?
The border and migration is going to be a big election year issue, and opponents of the current policy will need ideas. If there’s a new administration, we want it to dismantle the cruel policies of the past three years. But there’s some fear among Democrats that doing that all at once will cause a rush of migrants to the border, with the new administration’s first months dominated by Fox News videos of new caravans and mass apprehensions of families.
Undoing the cruelty while sticking a “soft landing” in a hypothetical 2021 will require a comprehensive approach, from the dangerous neighborhoods of Central America, through the migrant routes of Mexico, to the border, to our broken immigration courts. We need to work on identifying that approach, and building political support for it, so that the next administration, if it comes, will have a set of policies that it can take off the shelf with little or no lag time.
Other “defense oversight” work:
As I discussed in an analysis last month, Latin American militaries are playing ever more political roles as political turmoil increases. The “civilianization” that followed the region’s post-1980 demise of military regimes is reversing.
There will be a lot of work to do on that this year, especially when U.S. policy is even tangentially involved. (Keep an eye, in particular, on militaries’ role in two Central American countries whose governments are clinging tightly to the Trump administration: Guatemala and Honduras.)
As I don’t have much specific funding for overall “defense oversight” work, I won’t be able to do much travel or publications. It’s sort of a “watch brief.” But I do plan to make a lot of entries into my database of U.S. security relations with the region, and to do a thorough update of my catalog of all military aid programs. When alarming defense oversight situations come up, I'll make noise before the audiences that need to hear it. And if I can find funding later in the year, it would be great to do a country-by-country narrative, with statistics, of what the U.S. security aid package to every country in the region looks like right now.
CBP's December migration numbers
I still need to update our databases to reflect the latest numbers of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Here's one graphic, though: the drop in arrivals at the border, following an intense mid-2019 crackdown, has leveled off.