Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #41

These e-mails just keep getting longer. Which makes sense, there's a lot to talk about and we made a lot of stuff last week. With the end-of-year holidays approaching, the next few weeks' missives might be a lot shorter. Already, the list of upcoming events near the end of this message is smaller than it has been.

But who knows. This week we may find out whether the U.S. federal government will have a 2021 budget, what happened with migration at the U.S.-Mexico border in November, and how a "consultation" on aerial herbicide coca fumigation in Colombia might play out.

I'll be tracking all of that, while taking advantage of what I hope will be a lighter meeting and event schedule to move forward on a long-delayed report on Putumayo, Colombia. Let's all have a decent week. Now, a very long e-mail:

How Biden Can Overcome Obstacles to Reversing Trump’s Disastrous Migration Policies

How Biden Can Overcome Obstacles to Reversing Trump’s Disastrous Migration Policies

How Biden Can Overcome Obstacles to Reversing Trump’s Disastrous Migration Policies

The U.S. needs more effective migration policies. Biden should prioritize the following actions for the short, medium, and long term.

There's been a lot of media analyses lately warning that Joe Biden's administration will find it hard to unravel the tangle of anti-immigrant and border militarization policies that Stephen Miller and the rest of the Trump people are leaving behind. Especially if we're seeing a rise in late-COVID, post-hurricane migration from Central America.

At WOLA, Elyssa, Maureen, Adriana and I felt it was important to point out—across three timeframes—how the Biden administration could pursue a better way. The point here is that reversing Trump's migration policies can be done without a lot of drama, even during a wave of asylum seekers. Here's what the new administration can do in the short, medium, and long term.

In this commentary published Wednesday, we're reprising some arguments we've been making for a while—but this time we're writing from a place of cautious hope, instead of the past four years' dread.

“The Transition”: a four-volume WOLA podcast miniseries

"The Transition": a four-volume WOLA podcast miniseries

"The Transition": a four-volume WOLA podcast miniseries

In the weeks after the U.S. election was called for Joe Biden, I asked my colleagues at WOLA to join me for a series of podcasts. Following the four topics of a series of panels that WOLA hosted over the summer, we looked at some of the main challenges the new administration is sure to face—and how it might break with history and handle them differently this time.

I’m really glad I did these, and that eight of my co-workers took the time to join me. Though I’m still learning about audio quality (these are perfectly listenable but you can see why NPR spends so much on fancy studios), I’m delighted that we now have more than two and a half hours of high-quality analysis from people who are really paying attention to what’s going on. These four .mp3 files form an amazing snapshot of U.S.-Latin America relations on the threshold between two very different U.S. presidencies.

I've combined the four podcasts on a single page at my website. There, each of the podcast player widgets has a little download button (the down-arrow) so you can save the .mp3s. You can always find all of WOLA’s podcasts, going back to 2011, here. Or subscribe using your podcast player, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen to podcasts. The main feed is here.

November 16: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tonewith WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristen Martinez-Gugerli.

Even as the Biden administration adopts a changed tone in its relations with the region, there may be some surprising continuities from the Trump years. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.

November 23: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migrationwith Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer.

Trump’s hardline on migration policy is giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.

December 1: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fightwith Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

December 11: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Spacewith WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

Video of last Wednesday's discussion of coca and eradication in Colombia

Coca y erradicación después de cuatro años de la fase “posacuerdo” colombiana

We hosted a great discussion Wednesday (December 9) with a group of five longtime friends from Colombia. As the video makes plain, our partners in Colombia are very concerned about what might happen if the U.S-funded program of aerial glyphosate fumigation returns to Colombia’s coca-growing zones, as the Bogotá government is promising may happen in two months or less.

I’m pleased that several dozen people tuned in to the live event. Here is the video. There’s no translation track, so you have to be comfortable with Spanish.

We’ll keep making noise about this, because it’s bad policy, it’s going to harm people, and even if it temporarily brings the “hectare” number down, it will do so at great cost to social peace and to Colombia’s peace process.

A video archive about late 2020 civil-military relations, covering 11 Latin American countries

Friday's video (December 11), covering Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.
Our September 11 event, covering Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay.

After a very successful event on Friday, we now have, on WOLA’s YouTube page, four hours of discussions of the current moment with premier experts in civil-military relations from 11 Latin American countries. It’s in two parts: today’s discussion, and an earlier one, with a similar format, hosted in September.

Taken together, they are a tremendous resource for understanding this uneasy, precarious moment in the hemisphere’s politics and democratic transitions (or reversions). Sort of like two focus groups taking the pulse of things, shared with the public.

This is raw video in Spanish, though. Some audiences, like busy policymakers with competing commitments and responsibilities, won’t watch all of it. We need to repackage it, perhaps in a variety of formats. I need to figure out over the holidays how best to do that.

In the meantime, though, here are the event videos, which are really worth your time. In reverse chronological order:

Colombia peace update: Week of December 6, 2020

I think I'll just start putting the whole text of these updates into these emails—hopefully it doesn't add too much to the length.

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fumigation is coming

Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, told the Blu Radio network that a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation might restart in as little as “between a month and a half and two months.”

Five years ago, citing health concerns, the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos suspended this program, which used aircraft to spray the controversial herbicide glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015. The current government of Iván Duque is working to restart the program, with U.S. funding and exhortations from Donald Trump: “you’re going to have to spray.”

That requires meeting a series of requirements laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, among them consultations with communities and studies of environmental and health impact. The consultations had been slowed by the pandemic: a court in Nariño found that “virtual” exchanges were impossible with communities in remote areas far from internet coverage. That decision, though, was reversed by an October higher-court ruling. Now, 17 consultations are ongoing, and the environmental licensing authority, ANLA, will hold a final national consultation beginning on December 19.

Though Minister Ruiz’s maximum-two-months is on the fast end of estimates we have heard for when fumigation might restart, it is not implausible.

At a December 9 event WOLA hosted with five experts from around Colombia, speakers warned about potential damage that a renewed aerial glyphosate spraying might cause: to human health, to the environment, to indigenous cultures, and to nearby crops needed for food security. Speakers warned that a fumigation program would be costly, would cause forced displacement, and, under most circumstances, would violate the peace accords’ fourth chapter. They warned that a renewed fumigation program could inspire a wave of protest in coca-growing zones, especially if carried out under current conditions of insufficient prior consultation and few opportunities to receive crop substitution assistance.

FARC dissident activity around the country

Concerning reports from around the country point to increasing activity of FARC dissident groups. These are armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who rejected the peace accord in 2016, ex-guerrillas who demobilized but later rearmed, and new recruits. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación’s (PARES) latest report on the country’s security situation estimates that about 30 such groups, totaling perhaps 2,600 members, are active in 113 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). It places them in three categories:

  • Those networked under the 1st and 7th Front structure headed by Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who refused to demobilize in 2016. PARES estimates that 65% of dissidents are in this network.
  • The “Nueva Marquetalia” network headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks but rearmed in 2019.
  • Smaller, “dispersed” groups, often headed by very young people.

After Iván Márquez and several other top ex-FARC leaders launched their “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group in August 2019, Gentil Duarte’s larger dissident network appeared to rebuff their outreach. Now, “Police say there is a war to the death in the areas [the two dissident networks] aspire to control, such as Putumayo, Nariño, Catatumbo, and Cauca,” according to a December 10 story in El Espectador, which relies heavily on National Police information.

That story warns that Nueva Marquetalia is moving into the heartland of Gentil Duarte’s group, seeking to traffic cocaine along the Guaviare River between Meta and Guaviare. A December 7 half-ton cocaine seizure in Puerto Concordia, Meta, may indicate that Iván Márquez may have sent a powerful emissary to do this: Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” who twenty years ago was one of the most feared FARC members because he pioneered ransom kidnappings along main roads out of Bogotá. Much of the cocaine produced in Meta and Guaviare goes through Arauca into Venezuela, then by air or boat to Central America and Mexico, or on to Europe.

To the west of Puerto Concordia, in La Macarena, Meta, dissidents are believed to be behind the murder of Javier Francisco Parra, the director of Cormacarena, the Colombian government’s regional environmental body. Parra was known as a defender of Caño Cristales, a tourist destination famous for its uniquely colored algae. The site’s accessibility was widely hailed as a tangible benefit of the peace accord.

Another feared member of the Nueva Marquetalia, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa”—who headed the FARC’s brutal, elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Column—was dispatched to Putumayo. There, he made an alliance with that department’s most powerful regional organized crime group, called “La Constru” or occasionally “La Mafia Sinaloa,” and with remnants of the FARC’s 48th front. All are fighting the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group, which is aligned with Gentil Duarte, for control of Putumayo’s lucrative trafficking routes through Ecuador and out to the Pacific, and down the Caquetá river into Brazil and on to Europe.

Colombian press reports from the past week also find a worsening humanitarian situation in Nariño’s Pacific coastal region. In the busy port of Tumaco, “where, curiously, there are hundreds of Mexicans these days,” Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador about the wave of violence that followed the September collapse of a two-year truce between two local dissident groups, the Frente Óliver Sinisterra and the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico.

Several hours north and inland from Tumaco, in the violent Telembí Triangle region, La Silla Vacía reports on fighting between the Óliver Sinisterra, the Gentil Duarte-tied 30th Front, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, for control of the Patía River’s trafficking routes. Violence broke out six months ago, during the pandemic, and has been worsening ever since. Further north along the coast, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA alerted about combat between dissidents and other groups causing mass displacements in Iscuandé, Nariño.

In all of these reports, a common theme is the near-total absence of Colombia’s state. Usually, the only government presence is military—and in places like coastal Nariño, there is only so much even a corruption-free armed forces could do. In La Silla Vacía, the general heading the local armed forces task force “recognizes that the Patía River is too extensive and connects with a maze of smaller rivers that are impossible for the security forces to control in their entirety.”

  • Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his first overseas trip as chairman will be to Afro-descendant regions of Colombia , a country he knows well (and, some contend, controversially).
  • Colombia’s Senate approved a round of 19 military promotions, including those of Army Generals Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo and Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sánchez, who commanded units during the 2000s alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings.
  • Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian from Caucasia, in northeastern Antioquia’s convulsed Bajo Cauca region. Verdad Abierta also focused on the Bajo Cauca region, publishing a threepart series, with some striking photos, about armed group activity and social leaders’ precarious situation.
  • At a virtual hearing of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, representatives of Colombia’s Truth Commission denounced obstacles that the government has placed in the way of their work, such as security forces’ refusal to turn over requested documents. Colombian government representatives declined even to participate in the hearing.
  • A UNDP-PRIO-Universidad de los Andes poll of 12,000 residents of the 170 post-conflict “PDET” municipalities found reduced overall perceptions of armed-group control, and 80% support for programs that reintegrate former FARC combatants.

Weekly border update: December 11, 2020

As noted above, I'm putting the whole text of these updates into these emails, instead of just posting a link as before.

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Border wall a key disagreement delaying 2021 appropriations

Today, December 11, is the deadline that Congress had set for passage of a 2021 federal government budget. While the Democratic-majority House and Republican-majority Senate continue talks on a budget that Donald Trump might sign, they’re not finished. The Senate is likely to approve a continuing resolution, which the House passed Wednesday, extending the deadline to December 18 and averting a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic.

Legislators are “torn on at least a dozen policy issues, particularly related to immigration,” congressional staff told the Washington Post. “The most divisive issues in government spending talks concern funding for President Trump’s border wall with Mexico and detention facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

The two chambers’ versions of the 2021 Homeland Security Appropriations bill could hardly differ more widely on border wall funding. The Senate bill—which the Senate Appropriations Committee revealed in November but never voted on—provides $1.96 billion “for the construction of barrier system” along the U.S.-Mexico border. The House bill—which the House Appropriations Committee passed in July but was never debated on the floor—not only has no money for wall construction, it would rescind $1.38 billion from 2020 and ban future transfers of Defense Department funds for wall-building, as President Trump has done by declaring a “state of emergency.”

“Trump almost certainly won’t sign a package that guts funding for one of his biggest priorities as his administration comes to a close,” notes Politico. Still, with President-elect Biden promising to hold wall construction immediately upon his inauguration, it’s not clear what would happen with any wall-building money in the 2021 bill.

Media continue pointing to increasing migration, “caravan”

CBP has yet to release its November migrant apprehensions numbers. But November is likely to be the seventh consecutive month of increased migration since arrivals hit a pandemic low in April. Reports in major media—some citing CBP officials—are rumbling about an accelerating increase in migration from pandemic and hurricane-hit Central America. A common framing is that it’s an “early test” for the incoming Biden administration.

Officials are reporting increased arrivals of unaccompanied children, who are less subject to immediate expulsion under questionably legal pandemic border measures. Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said that the agency is “apprehending an average of 153 young migrants a day at the border since October.” In court filings, CBP has projected “that the flow of unaccompanied children could increase by 50 percent by late March 2021,” the Texas Tribune reports.

Often, Ortiz said, the children and their smugglers are seeking to avoid apprehension—which is a new pattern—and are being kept in “stash houses” in the border zone before being moved further north. For those who are apprehended, the Office of Refugee Resettlement—to which unaccompanied children are transferred—has less shelter space due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions: 7,971 beds, down from the norm of 13,764.

More migration from pandemic and hurricane-battered Central America appears to be a certainty. About 1,000 Honduran people, most of them victims of hurricanes Eta and Iota, departed the bus station in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday night in a “caravan” reportedly organized over social media. These efforts to migrate across Mexico, using “safety in numbers” rather than paying thousands of dollars to smugglers, became a staple of Fox News coverage and Donald Trump messaging in 2018.

Since then, though, almost none have made it through Mexico. A few members of a January 2019 caravan trickled into the United States, but most remained in Mexico. Since then, Mexico has deployed security and migration forces to block attempted caravans in the country’s far south, in April and October 2019, and again in January 2020. In October 2020, a caravan of Hondurans was broken up in Guatemala. And now, Guatemala’s National Police have announced “preventive actions” against new Honduran migration, requiring travelers to have valid passports and COVID-19 tests.

It’s not clear what a migrant wave might mean for the Biden team’s promised dismantling of the Trump administration’s hardline migration measures. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Biden transition team is “trying to decide which policies to change and when, in order to fulfill Mr. Biden’s campaign promises without creating the appearance of leniency.” This may include “temporarily leaving in place Mr. Trump’s pandemic order to return most migrants to Mexico shortly after they cross the border,” despite the illegality of expelling endangered people without giving them a hearing.

In WOLA’s view, dealing with a rising flow of asylum-seeking migrants is an administrative issue that—while difficult because the Trump administration is leaving behind a lack of infrastructure—can be handled with little drama. In a December 9 commentary, WOLA points to short, medium, and long term measures that the Biden administration can implement to handle a “wave” while guaranteeing protection to those who need it.

Hope for passage of missing migrant bill

The remains of about 8,000 migrants, most of whom died painful deaths of dehydration and exposure, have been found on U.S. soil, in border regions, since 1998. Advocates who have spent years trying to prevent these deaths, and to identify the remains, are hopeful that long-awaited legislation might ease their work.

S. 2174, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-California), passed the Senate by unanimous consent on November 16. Among other measures, the bill would fund the installation of up to 170 rescue beacons in desert areas, while helping local jurisdictions and non-profits pay for efforts to handle and identify migrant remains.

An identical bill in the House, H.R. 8772, was introduced November 18 by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). It needs to pass by the end of the 2020 congressional session in order to become law, otherwise both chambers need to start over again in 2021.

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal until at least October of 2021.
  • The Trump administration is leaving office by promulgating its most restrictive rule yet undoing the right to seek asylum.
  • The New York Times published a wild story, based on a whistleblower complaint and a FOIA request, alleging that border wall contractor SLS and subcontractor Ultimate Concrete had brought Mexican citizens illegally onto their work site, on the U.S. side of the border in California, to work as armed guards. CBP records meanwhile showed that between October 2019 and March 2020, more than 320 breaches of the border wall took place in California and Arizona—nearly 2 per day.
  • Thirty-five Democratic members of the House of Representatives, led by Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), sent a letter to Joe Biden asking him to “immediately” rescind Trump’s emergency declarations, waivers, and private property condemnations enabling wall-building.
  • The El Paso Times ran a 4,000-word account of the journey of a Guatemalan father and his 10-year-old daughter caught in the web of “Remain in Mexico.”
  • Reporters from several outlets around the world, calling themselves “The Cartel Project,” published an investigation into the 2012 murder of Veracruz, Mexico journalist Regina Martínez, which they portray as the template that organized crime-tied politicians have since used to silence the press. They aim to finish the work Martínez was doing—investigating the corrupt links between Veracruz’s state governors and organized crime—when assassins killed her in her home. Stories appear concurrently in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Spain’s El País, Mexico’s Proceso, and OCCRP.
  • An unsealed whistleblower complaint from a border wall construction site in California has some remarkable allegations, summarized by The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs. Among them, contractors brought Mexican citizens illegally onto their work site, on the U.S. side of the border, to work as armed guards. CBP records meanwhile show that between October 2019 and March 2020, migrants breached the border wall in California and Arizona more than 320 times.
  • Two new Colombian online investigative outlets, Vorágine and La Liga Contra el Silencio, collaborated to tell the story of Juana Perea, a Bogotá-raised beachfront hotel owner and defiant activist in the town of Nuquí, on Chocó department’s small patch of Atlantic coast. In October, Perea became one of many social leaders murdered in northwest Colombia by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group. Pair this with Verdad Abierta’s thoroughly reported and vividly photographed story about William Castillo, a social leader in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region whom Gulf Clan hitmen murdered in 2016.
  • “Since 2007, the U.S. government has relied on a small coterie of Mexican officials to implement the Mérida Initiative,” begins an account presenting a trove of U.S. documents that the National Security Archive obtained via a FOIA request. It’s hard not to cringe reading U.S. officials’ words of praise for Mexican counterparts who now face criminal charges for links to organized crime.
  • Honduras’s ContraCorriente finds that, after years of corruption undermining public-private infrastructure projects, the public almost completely distrusts the government’s announced bipartisan rebuilding effort following hurricanes Eta and Iota.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in November

A little late posting this, but the first one and the last one are especially worthwhile.

  • Southwest Border: Information on Federal Agencies’ Process for Acquiring Private Land for Barriers(Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, November 17, 2020). An update on the status of 5,275 acres of eminent domain claims, for which the federal government seeks to seize land from private property owners to build the Trump administration’s border wall.
  • Rule of Law Assistance: State and USAID Could Improve Monitoring Efforts (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, November 9, 2020). A look at how the State Department’s Narcotics Bureau and USAID monior the effectiveness of rule of law programs, with Colombia one of the countries most scrutinized.
  • Guyana – Bell 412EPi and 429 Helicopters (Washington: Defense Security Cooperation Agency, October 30, 2020). The President must notify Congress of any pending Foreign Military Sale of defense articles or services exceeding $50 million, of design and construction services exceeding $200 million, or any major defense equipment exceeding $14 million.
  • June S. Beittel, Colombia: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, October 26, 2020). A detailed overview of past and current U.S. assistance to Colombia, as well as Colombia’s current political outlook.

Monday, December 14

  • 7:00pm at ContraCorriente: Periodismo transnacional: retos y logros (RSVP required).

Tuesday, December 15

  • 8:00–9:00am at csis.org: A Partnership for Taiwan and Latin America: The Creative Economy (RSVP required).
  • 11:00–12:00 at the dialogue.org: Economic Recovery and Rebuilding the Social Fabric in Latin America and the Caribbean (RSVP required).
  • 2:30 at Amnesty USA Zoom: Protecting Asylum-Seekers During COVID-19: How We Can Uphold Human Rights, Safeguard Public Health, and Ensure Humanitarian Support (RSVP required).

Wednesday, December 16

  • 11:00–12:00 at the dialogue.org: Ingresos mineros y petroleros, el cambio climático y la recuperación verde(RSVP required).
  • 3:00–4:15 at thedialogue.org: Rethinking Drug Policy in the Americas (RSVP required).
  • 3:00–4:30 at wola.org: Peru 2021: ¿Quo Vadis? (RSVP required).
  • 5:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Latin America-China relations in 2021: Opportunities, risks, and recommendations (RSVP required).

A few tweets that made me laugh this week


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Jamie Larson