Greetings! Last week, Holy Week or “Semana Santa,” is usually one of the quietest of the year in Latin America as the region takes off work and slows down. This year, though, it wasn’t easy to distinguish it from what is now a “normal” week: the whole world has slowed down more than any of us has ever seen. (Unless you’re a doctor, a nurse, a supermarket employee, a truck driver, a delivery person…) I hope that your “Semana Santa” felt at least a little different—that is, better—than normal.
Here are some things I worked on last week.
New “Explainer”: The ELN
When I launched the “Explainers” section of WOLA’s renovated colombiapeace.org website, I wrote that I “plan to add approximately one per week between now and June.” That was on March 25—18 days ago. I’m pleased to say that finally, I’ve posted a new (fourth) one.
This one took longer for a reason, though. It’s a huge topic: an overview of the National Liberation Army, ELN, Colombia’s largest existing guerrilla group. The Explainer whirls you through the ELN’s unfortunate history, its command structure and way of operating, its geography, its revenue streams, its awful human rights record, and its experience with peace talks. All in a concise 5,400 words—but with lots of photos and maps.
A man-made disaster brewing at the border
So, imagine that Donald Trump were to win re-election in November, and also win supermajorities in the House and Senate. What would U.S. border and migration policy look like?
It would look pretty much like it does exactly right now. The White House has seized on the COVID-19 emergency to ram through most of its border-security and immigration agenda by fiat. And it’s doing it in ways that threaten to spread the virus: at home, in Mexican border towns, and in Central America.
Read all about it at WOLA’s website, where a new commentary by me went up Monday. In a nutshell, the following are all happening, all at once:
- Border wall construction is still proceeding
- The Pentagon is sending more troops
- The end of the right to asylum
- Turning back unaccompanied children
- Deportations haven’t stopped
- Repatriation agreements suspended
- “Remain in Mexico” hearings delayed
- Crowded detention centers
- Mexico’s migration crackdown continues
This is all happening at once. We need to stare it in the face, so we can then make a lot of noise about it.
In a Twitter-length (2:17) video from my home office/laundry room, I talk about the four ways that the administration's crackdown is risking further spread of the coronavirus, killing people in the process:
- 90-minute expulsions of everyone, even asylum seekers
- Those ICE deportation flights to Central America
- Packing people into detention centers
- Itinerant wall-builders working, living at close quarters
This is so dumb and reckless. It's got to stop.
Migration data, visualized
On April 9 U.S. Customs and Border Protection released its statistics about migration at the border during March. At first glance, the coronavirus border shutdown doesn't appear to have reduced migration from the levels we've seen since about October.
However, from other statistics that CBP put out in a piecemeal fashion, it appears that from March 1 to 20, when it was business as usual at the border, U.S. authorities were apprehending 1,100 migrants per day—on pace to be more than the past several months. From March 21 onward, with the border closed to all but "essential" travel and Border Patrol instantly expelling at least 80 percent of people without proper documents, that number fell to about 720 per day. And during the first eight days of April, it may have dropped to 570 per day, which is getting close to "lowest number of migrant apprehensions in 50 years" territory.
You can also see what happened to the number of people (including asylum seekers) allowed to approach the official border crossings, or ports of entry. With nearly 100 percent being "metered" away—turned back from the ports—after March 20, the already low number dropped sharply. Look at that last column; April's may be not even be a column at all, as it hits zero:
This week's WOLA interview podcasts
I'm still enjoying recording at least 3 conversations per week with really smart people, and putting them out as WOLA Podcasts. Here are 3 more, in chronological order:
1. With Lars Schoultz: I’ve been reading Lars Schoultz’s scholarship on U.S.-Latin America relations since I was in college, and I was delighted that he would record a podcast. The longtime professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published an award-winning book in 2018, In Their Own Best Interest. In it, he takes to task U.S. policymakers and advocates who seek to “uplift” or “improve” Latin American nations, viewing them as part of a very long tradition going back to imperialists of the gunboat diplomacy era. He notes that some countries are hardly better off after a century of U.S. “uplifting,” and worries about how our grandchildren will view the policies that we advocate for today. Is WOLA guilty of this? While I frankly don’t see much of myself in Schoultz’s characterization of our work, I really enjoyed engaging him in this lively and very thought-provoking discussion.
2. With Marcos Robledo, Rebecca Bill Chávez, and Mariano Aguirre: a tri-continental conversation, based on a paper published in March by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Latin America Regional Security Program. The paper takes stock of the complicated geopolitical, institutional, economic, and social moment that Latin America and the Caribbean are in today. It examines the crisis of democratic institutions, the United States’ hard turn toward unilateralism, the growing roles of China and Russia, and the impending effect of phenomena like climate change, automation, and artificial intelligence.
This podcast talks about all of this with the paper’s three authors. In Santiago: Marcos Robledo, co-director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation project, is a Chilean security expert who served in Chile’s defense ministry, including as a vice-minister, during Michelle Bachelet’s time as minister and as president. In Washington: Rebecca Bill Chávez is a defense expert who served in the Pentagon as deputy secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs during Barack Obama’s second term. In Oslo: Mariano Aguirre, former director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, NOREF, who has worked for the UN Resident Representative’s office in Bogotá and managed research efforts in Spain, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Aguirre is a member of WOLA’s board of directors.
3. With Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: As of early April 2020, Colombia had documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures. This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.” I talked to that memo’s author, WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, who explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.
5 links from the past week
- Colombia’s Semana investigates how Mexican drug trafficking organizations are altering both the country’s drug trade and its armed conflict. The analysis is spread across five articles published April 9 and 10: an overview; reports from the conflictive Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, and coastal Nariño regions; and an analysis of the changing coca trade by Daniel Rico.
- At the Christian Science Monitor, Sara Miller Llana writes about the state of democracy in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. As is happening elsewhere in the world, she finds, democracy is threatened by rising authoritarianism and polarization, but resistance remains robust as the hardline President’s poll numbers drop.
- At Nueva Sociedad, four noted South American analysts take stock of the “South American Geopolitics of Coronavirus,” with updates from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
- A team of researchers at Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation does something similar, but more detailed, for Colombia, exploring what COVID-19 might mean for the balance between armed and criminal groups; the humanitarian situation; migration and borders; social protest; the security forces; and implementation of the 2016 peace accord.
- The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission published its annual report on the state of human rights in the hemisphere. It’s a bit of a slog to read through—very long, and nobody would call the Commission’s writing style “direct” or “hard-hitting”—but it is deeply thorough and very well researched.
Latin America-related online events this week
There must be more than these happening around the region. The event announcements that find their way to me tend to be very Washington-centric.
Tuesday, April 14
- 4:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: President Iván Duque: Colombia’s COVID-19 response and strategies moving forward (RSVP required).
Wednesday, April 15
- 10:00–11:15 at usip.org: Coronavirus and Conflict: The Security Sector Response (RSVP required).
- 11:00–12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Covid-19 in Latin America: The Role of Social Policy (RSVP required).
- 11:00–12:00 at heritage.org: Examining the Trump Administration’s Recent Actions on Venezuela (RSVP required).
Thursday, April 16
- 4:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: COVID-19 in Brazil: Health, political, and economic implications of the pandemic (RSVP required).
Tweets that made me laugh the most this week
It's ok to laugh. Quietly, when nobody's looking.
Bogotá's coronavirus lockdown has cleared the air in Bogotá to such an extent that the Nevado de Tolima and Nevado del Ruiz—snow-capped mountains more than 150 miles away—are now visible at times. Semana Sostenible ran some photos from Instagrammers, like this one.
That impressive photo is the result of some telephoto wizardry, though. Here's a photo of the photographer taking that photo:
Still, someone in my Twitter replies unearthed a drawing of colonial-era Bogotá, and indeed, the mountains are there.
See you next week.