Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #42

Happy holidays, everyone. I've been off—or at least writing while avoiding meetings and email—since Wednesday. As a result, this message is a bit shorter than the past few. Also, there are no upcoming events to talk about.

One thing I've found in my time off: the age of streaming video has opened up a whole universe of Christmas movies that I somehow missed when they came out. As far as I can tell, most of them seem to feature a white guy in the suburbs who's kind of a jerk, gets a gentle comeuppance (no "three ghosts" or anything), then vows to be a somewhat better person without sacrificing his privilege. I've had a few of these clunkers on the TV while wrapping presents and writing out cards, and the only one I liked was "Office Christmas Party" (which you may find too slapstick or juvenile, don't say I didn't warn you). I'm going back to the classics for the rest of the season.

Anyway. Even though I've been on semi-vacation, there's still much going on, as the Colombia and border updates below make clear. While I won't be sending out an update next weekend, I really hope that you have a good holiday or, if social distancing makes that difficult, that you have a restful one.

A good bill actually passed

I'm pleased to say that on Friday, Congress passed the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act and sent it to the president for his signature. It's not an earth-shaking reform of border policy, but it at least does something about the hundreds of migrants who die of dehydration and exposure on U.S. soil each year. The law will save lives by installing more rescue beacons for migrants lost in borderland deserts, help local jurisdictions—many of them quite resource-poor—pay for dealing properly with remains, and help  relatives find at least some closure by identifying those who perish.

Here's a statement from the Southern Border Communities Coalition, to which I contributed a quote.

In a Rare Moment of Agreement, Congress Sends Bipartisan Humanitarian Bill to the President - Southern Border Communities Coalition

In a Rare Moment of Agreement, Congress Sends Bipartisan Humanitarian Bill to the President - Southern Border Communities Coalition

The Bill Was Passed on International Migrants Day and Will Help Prevent Deaths and Identify Human Remains in Remote Border Regions.

Colombia peace update: Week of December 13, 2020

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.

Consultation puts a restart of fumigation on the front burner

On December 19 Colombia’s environmental authority, the ANLA, is holding a long-awaited public hearing about resuming coca fumigation. The term refers to a U.S.-backed program that uses aircraft spraying the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca. The hearing is a step toward ANLA’s deciding whether to award the controversial program an environmental license, one of several prerequisites that Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set for its restart.

Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years and over 1.8 million hectares sprayed, following a World Health Organization literature review’s finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Since then, the government was slow to implement an alternative—whether on-the-ground eradication or building state presence and services in coca-growing zones—and coca cultivation surged.

The December 19 public hearing centers on the 4,000-page modification that the National Police—which runs the spray program—is proposing to the ANLA’s environmental management plan for the spraying. The hearing responds to a March request from four NGOs, Acción Técnica Social, Elementa, Viso Mutop, y Dejusticia. The pandemic has delayed it: courts ruled that communities in remote areas far from internet access could not be consulted “virtually.” A higher court overruled that in October, however, finding that virtual consultations could go ahead.

The groups that called for the hearing contend that the spray program is risky and ineffective. DeJusticia’s co-founder, Rodrigo Uprimny, notes, “The argument against fumigation is simple: it is not effective, it has serious negative effects, its legal viability is precarious, and there are better strategies.” María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs (CESED) contends that fumigation causes “a loss of state legitimacy,” a “balloon effect” as coca cultivation moves elsewhere, and conflict with the peace accords’ offer of help with crop substitution.

Should this process lead to a restart of spraying, we can expect Colombian organizations—including those that called for the December 19 hearing—to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. An analysis from DeJusticia advocates finds “poor transparency and access to information in the process, weak evidence, and failure to comply with constitutional orders,” while little is known about the health study that Colombia’s equivalent of the CDC (the INS) has been required to carry out. A joint letter from numerous Colombian organizations found that “the government is not complying with the legal and constitutional mandate to respect consultation and free, prior, and informed consent in eradication plans in ethnic territories,” and demanded that the December 19 hearing be suspended.

Coca fumigation has been the subject of numerous WOLA reports and commentaries, a November 30 joint letter with Colombian partners, and an event we co-hosted on December 9.

International warnings about massacres and social leader killings

“I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence,” reads a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that counts 375 people murdered in 2020 by massacres and targeted social leader killings. A summary of the statement was featured for at least two days this week on the main page of the United Nations’ website. During the past week, strong concerns about massacres (defined as the killing of multiple people at a time) and social leader murders also came from:

  • The 29th semi-annual report of OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA), drawing attention to “illegal armed groups’ territorial and social control.”
  • A Verdad Abierta resource that allows a reader to view brief biographical and geographical information about 602 social leaders killed between January 2016 and September 2020, selecting for year, region, and stage of judicial investigation.
  • WOLA’s monthly alert about the human rights situation, which “cannot stress enough that international actions are required to stop the human rights rollbacks occurring as a result of the inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace accord.”

Two reports warn about security along the Colombia-Venezuela border

Two high-credibility security think tanks released reports raising alarms about worsening security conditions at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Even as pandemic measures stop all legal border crossings, violent organized crime activity has increased, in a way that mixes dangerously with the neighboring governments’ poor diplomatic relations.

“In the 24 border municipalities of Colombia, during 2020, 472 people have been assassinated, 63 of Venezuelan nationality; 24 have been massacred; 1,365 persons have been forcibly displaced and 13 have been kidnapped,” reports the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación in a 55-page report on The Situation of Security and Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela Border. “On the Venezuelan side,” however, the Foundation could obtain “no known figures that would allow us to specify” how bad the situation is.

“Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings,” reports the International Crisis Group’s Disorder on the Border: Keeping the Peace between Colombia and Venezuela. “High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.”

Both reports find the Rastrojos, a paramilitary-derived organized crime group, losing ground to the ELN along the border between Norte de Santander, Colombia and Táchira, Colombia: a more densely populated part of the border especially coveted by smugglers. The Rastrojos were found to have helped Venezuelan Assembly President (recognized by several dozen countries as Interim President) Juan Guaidó to cross overland into Colombia in February 2019. Since then, Venezuela’s security forces have cracked down on the group, along with the ELN, which moved quickly to fill the vacuum and to consolidate its dominance on the Venezuelan side on the border.

The Venezuelan government appears to have aided and abetted the ELN, the Crisis Group notes, as Caracas officials “view the ELN as a supplement to the state’s border defenses and seem willing to overlook occasional clashes between its fighters and the Venezuelan military.”

Other groups, like FARC dissidents, remnants of the EPL guerrillas, Venezuelan gang networks, and Mexican cartel middlemen, are also very active, adding to the chaos. “The Colombian army, for its part, is under orders not to rock the boat” in order to minimize the likelihood of conflict, the ICG finds.

  • The Fiscalía is investigating 2,314 cases of “false positive” cases involving 10,949 members of the Army, including 22 generals, involving 3,966 victims, according to a September document that the prosecutor’s office sent to the International Criminal Court.
  • Despite the sharp rise in massacres and social leader killings, Colombia’s 2020 homicide rate to date is 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents, which Colombia’s Police say is the lowest in 46 years.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses take issue with government claims that nearly all 250 killings of ex-FARC guerrillas are related to narcotrafficking.
  • “Of the 75 municipalities with the most coca or substitution leader killings…there were specialized judges in only 3 (Puerto Asís, Tumaco, and Cúcuta) and criminal judges in 6. There were judicial police in 11 and specialized prosecutors in 7,” reads a La Silla Vacía analysis of the justice system’s absence.
  • Prominent center-left columnists Ramiro Bejarano, María Jimena Duzán, and Cecilia Orozco continued to question former Fiscal General Néstor Humberto Martínez, whom they accuse of plotting with the U.S. DEA to entrap participants and supporters of the peace process between 2017 and 2019.

Weekly border update: December 18, 2020

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.

2021 spending package probably includes some border wall money

The House and Senate have almost completely agreed on a federal budget for 2021. Its final approval might not come until next week, as negotiations continue over an accompanying COVID-19 relief package.

Border wall and ICE detention money were reportedly two of the sticking points on the 2021 omnibus budget bill. The Republican-majority Senate’s Homeland Security appropriation had sought to devote $1.96 billion to border wall-building next year, while the Democratic-majority House sought to zero out the wall and rescind some past-year money. The House also would have paid for roughly half as many ICE detention beds as the Senate.

The chambers appear to have reached a compromise. “The final disposition of immigrant detention bed capacity and border wall funding wasn’t immediately clear,” Roll Call reported on December 14. “But there was an expectation that the average daily population at ICE facilities would be cut under the tentative agreement in exchange for some wall construction funding.”

Nobody has seen any numbers, and it isn’t clear how the bill’s language might compel President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he would stop wall construction, to spend any new wall-building money.

The Washington Post learned from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that about $3.3 billion in its Defense budget wall construction accounts will be unspent as of January 20. As it might cost $700 million in fees to extricate the Corps from its contracts with construction companies, a halt would bring a net savings of about $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile in Arizona, NPR reported, “contractors have added shifts—they’re working all night long under light towers to meet Trump’s goal of 450 miles of new barriers before his term is over.”

El Salvador “safe third country” agreement is finalized

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary for Homeland Security (depending on whom you ask), visited El Salvador this week. There, he met with President Nayib Bukele and announced implementation accords for a so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA, or “safe third country” agreement) that the United States and El Salvador signed in September 2019.

Under this agreement, El Salvador—a country so unsafe that it often tops the list of U.S. asylum seekers’ nationalities—will accept U.S. transfers of other countries’ asylum seekers, who would then need to seek protection in El Salvador.

DHS signed similar agreements with Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Only the Guatemala agreement entered into force, and the Trump administration sent 939 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to Guatemala City between October 2019 and March 2020, when pandemic measures suspended the arrangement. Only 20 percent of them decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala; at least some of the rest were assuredly returned to danger. Human Rights Watch and Refugees International performed follow-up fieldwork in Guatemala, and found that of 30 returnees interviewed:

Several said they had no family or support networks in Guatemala and that they feared for their safety in Guatemala. Many indicated they would return to El Salvador and Honduras despite continuing to express a fear of persecution there.

Don’t expect the Biden administration to implement the El Salvador or other Northern Triangle safe third country agreements. A Biden campaign document was unequivocal: “Biden will end these [detrimental asylum] policies, starting with Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols and Safe Third Country Agreements.”

CBP’s November numbers show the expected migrant “wave” flattening out, for now

On December 14 Customs and Border Protection released monthly border statistics, covering November. After six consecutive months of increases in Border Patrol’s apprehensions of undocumented migrants, the new data showed a leveling off last month.

  • Apprehensions declined by 0.8 percent, from 67,639 to 67,101, from October to November.
  • This, however, was the largest apprehensions number for a November since November 2005.
  • Note that this number measures “apprehensions” or “encounters,” not “people.” The quick turnaround of CBP’s pandemic-era expulsions is spurring recidivism as migrants turn around and try to cross again. The 67,101 includes much double and triple-counting.
  • Between March and November—with some double-counting—CBP expelled 328,037 apprehended migrants under the “Title 42” CDC pandemic policy, which ejects adult and family asylum seekers without a hearing. That policy faces legal challenges; on whether to lift or alter it, “the incoming administration has been silent,” a New York Timesanalysis notes.
  • Demographic trends are mixed. Compared to October,
  • - single adults from Mexico declined 2 percent;
  • - single adults from the Northern Triangle increased 21 percent;
  • - unaccompanied children from Guatemala and El Salvador increased, but children from Honduras and Mexico declined;
  • - family unit members from Guatemala and Mexico increased, but those from El Salvador and Honduras declined.

As noted in previous updates, officials and press coverage are predicting a migrant “surge” from Central America in early 2021. While that remains likely, November’s apprehension data revealed an unexpected break in momentum. One hypothesis: mobility was curtailed during the first half of November, when Central America was slammed by two major hurricanes.

  • In a Wednesday voice vote, the House of Representatives passed the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act (S. 2174), which addresses the longstanding crisis of hundreds of migrants each year dying in U.S. borderlands of dehydration and exposure. It authorizes spending for rescue beacons, identification of remains, and other priorities, as discussed in last week’s update. Because of some technical changes to the bill’s language, it needs the Senate—which passed the bill in November—to quickly approve it a second time before it goes to the President for signature.
  • A new Human Rights First report counts at least 1,314 attacks, including kidnappings, rapes, and assault, on asylum seekers subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy in Mexican border cities.
  • Though a Supreme Court decision just preserved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a big challenge goes before a Texas federal court on Tuesday. A suit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, now known nationally for leading a multi-state challenge to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, is going before Houston District Judge Andrew Hanen, who during the Obama administration ruled against two other deferred-action programs and now may find DACA to be illegal.
  • “Although Biden promised to reverse Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, he didn’t include immigration among his top four priorities: the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. That was intentional,” an unnamed source close to the transition told NPR’s Franco Ordóñez, adding “that the Biden campaign and then the transition team felt that immigration activists had become too adversarial.”
  • In part 5 of a 5-part series, The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan takes an in-depth look at the increasing power and unaccountability of Mexico’s military. Few countries in Latin America have handed over so many roles to the armed forces, and it happened fast.
  • Pair that with J. Weston Phippen’s investigation in Politico Magazine of a U.S.-aided Mexican Marine Special Forces unit that went on a rampage in the border city of Nuevo Laredo in 2018, disappearing dozens of people—including a U.S. citizen—without a peep from the Trump administration.
  • Pair that with what is probably longtime New York Times bureau chief Azam Ahmed’s last piece before departing Mexico: the story of Miriam Rodríguez, the mother of one of tens of thousands of Mexican victims of kidnapping and murder, who got almost no help from law enforcement and captured her daughter’s killers down on her own until she, too, was murdered in her home in San Fernando, Tamaulipas.
  • Communities in Colombia’s ill-governed coca-growing territories are bracing for a possible holiday announcement that U.S.-funded spray planes are to resume spraying glyphosate after a 2015 suspension. Two analysts at DeJusticia—an NGO at the vanguard of the legal fight against fumigation—decry the policy and the process being used to restart it.
  • The International Crisis Group and the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published reports warning of a deteriorating security situation along the Colombia-Venezuela border. It is formally closed due to the pandemic, but armed and criminal groups operate numerous illicit crossings. Both reports find the ELN gaining strength, at times abetted by the Venezuelan government, while paramilitaries, FARC dissidents, EPL guerrilla remnants, Venezuelan gangs, and Mexican cartel middlemen all add to the complexity.

Rethinking drug policy

Here’s a 250-word comment in Tuesday’s edition of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor newsletter.

Q: U.S. Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on Dec. 1 released the final report of the congressionally mandated Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, which includes recommendations to improve U.S. drug policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Does the United States need a renewed blueprint for counternarcotics policies, as the report suggests? What are the most significant changes in drug policy that the commission recommends, and are they the right ones? In what ways would the proposed policies affect anti-drug cooperation between the United States and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean?

A: Adam Isacson, senior associate for the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America: “For four decades, U.S. administrations have sought to address illicit drugs as a problem somehow separate from Latin America’s other challenges, as though a country wracked with impunity, poverty and weak governance could somehow eliminate drug trafficking. Washington encouraged the region to pursue coercive strategies with short-term success measures and punished countries that failed to ‘cooperate fully.’ It hasn’t worked. Today, the United States is at a moment of record overdoses from illicit drugs produced in the region, while seizures and price data indicate burgeoning supplies. Organized crime, which gets much of its revenue from the drug trade, is thriving and spurring alarming levels of violence in many countries. Overall, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission’s most important contribution is its encouragement of a long- term time frame and a more equal, consultative approach. It would replace the unilateral ‘certification’ process with agreed-upon ‘compacts.’ It would place badly needed emphasis on illicit financial flows, which too often benefit corrupt officials and economic interests. In Colombia, it would de-emphasize forced eradication in favor of implementing the peace accords’ rural governance provisions. In Mexico and Central America, it prefers criminal justice reform and citizen security to endless ‘kingpin’ operations. The commission’s less threat-based, more equal approach might take longer to yield results and will require unaccustomed patience. These results, however, would hold much more promise of being permanent. A more consultative posture, meanwhile, would do far more to improve cooperation regionwide than the asymmetric relationship we’ve seen for so long.”

A few tweets that made me laugh this week


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Jamie Larson