I'm writing this on the evening of Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As someone online pointed out, this is the last night that we go to bed knowing that a full day of the Donald Trump presidency lies ahead. This is it. Sweet dreams.
Two off-topic end-of-Trump-era posts
Here in Washington, after the January 6 riot, we're in the tightest lockdown I've ever seen. It inspired two off-topic bits of content on my website.
On Saturday, the family and I went through security and got as close to the Capitol that the public can get: a good half-mile away. We had to see what downtown Washington looked like, though: this is history. I posted a bunch of photos of militarized pre-Inauguration Washington to my site; here are a few.
If you can bear it, there's more photos here.
Who gets to decide who the “good” citizens are? Who gets to be north of the flag’s blue line, with the orderly stars, and who is south of the line, to be kept out and pushed away? And in any case, why slash a dividing line across a flag, the ultimate symbol of national unity?
This is another off-topic post—but the proliferation of that "thin blue line" flag, and its display by people who are supposed to protect us, have bothered me for a while. After seeing an image of a Washington-deployed National Guardsman this week with a thin-blue-line patch on his pack, I felt a need to unload. It's not just that this emblem has been appropriated by white supremacists: it's about division, "us versus them" thinking, polarization, and bad policing.
Colombia peace update: January 16, 2021
Trump administration, citing the ELN talks’ outcome, puts Cuba on the U.S. terrorist sponsors list
On January 11, with nine days left to the Trump presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government was once again designating Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” alongside North Korea, Syria, and Iran. President Barack Obama’s administration had removed Cuba from this “terrorist list” in 2015.
The measure carries penalties, like bans on assistance and arms sales, that already apply to Cuba through other laws. The Biden administration can remove Cuba, American University’s William LeoGrande explains, by submitting “a presidential report and certification to Congress, which then has 45 days to reject the certification before it goes into effect.”
The main pretext cited for re-listing Cuba involves Colombia. In May 2018 Colombia’s government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host ELN-government peace talks. At the talks’ April 2016 outset, all involved—including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These made clear that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was skeptical about peace talks.
In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police Cadets’ School, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government rejected the protocols: it demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves demand to leave Cuba as detailed in the protocols.
Critics of the State Department decision pointed out that Havana is being punished for assisting a peace process and obeying its rules. “They felt they were doing what they were asked to do, then being accused of being terrorists themselves,” said a source whom The Washington Post described as “a former senior U.S. official familiar with Latin American policy.”
Condemnation came from many quarters, including WOLA.
- “Efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable,” read a letter from nine Democratic senators, led by incoming Appropriations Committee Chairperson Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont.)
- “I am outraged,” said the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York).
- “If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts,” read a statement from the government of Norway.
- The Colombian government’s two lead negotiators during the FARC peace process warned “that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments.”
- On the other side, legislators from Colombia’s ruling rightist Centro Democrático party signed a letter calling on President Duque to consider breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba. And Colombia’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, tweeted that “The Government of Colombia will be forceful against diplomats who attempt to act and interfere within the country.”
Presidency peace and stabilization official reports results, responds to critics
The Colombian Presidency official who oversees most peace accord implementation, Emilio Archila, told El Espectadorthat he doesn’t know why critics accuse his government of focusing too exclusively on certain aspects of the accord, like the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). “A very small part of it,” he surmised, “is that it is in the political opposition’s interest that we arrive at [the election year of] 2022 with the idea that not enough is being done, and perhaps the opposition has done better than me.”
Archila had choice words for Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco, who upon the release of HRW’s annual worldwide report said that “in Colombia you turn over a stone and a sicario comes out,” while accusing the government of “a fundamentally military response” to human rights problems. “This is an insulting statement regarding Colombia,” the presidency official replied.
In interviews and in the release of monthly results reports, Archila pointed to a Defense Ministry “intelligence bubble” to follow up on risks and threats against ex-combatants “which has saved the lives of several.” Presidency documents cite 1,134 mostly small development projects delivered in the PDETs’ 170 municipalities (counties). Archila rejected criticism that delivery of these projects has not been as consultative as the accords envisioned. To criticisms that the projects have been too small to bring fundamental change in rural Colombia, he responded that larger projects, like tertiary roads, are coming but take longer.
FARC party spokesman Pastor Alape Lascarro told El Espectador that the PDETs “are not responding to the expectations of the communities, carrying out works that are not within the framework established in the Peace Agreement.” He questioned the long-term sustainability of economic projects offered to ex-combatants, while recalling that 253 of 13,185 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the accords’ signature.
Environmental defender Gonzalo Cardona is assassinated
On January 11 the Fundación ProAves, which seeks to protect birds and other wildlife in Colombia, announced the murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, coordinator of a ProAves preserve in Tolima department that provides refuge for the endangered yellow-eared parrot. ProAves had reported Cardona missing on January 8, and confirmed a few days later that he had been killed.
Cardona was a founding member of the environmental group , working in Roncesvalles municipality in west-central Tolima since 1998 to save a bird species whose population in Colombia’s central cordillera, by then, had fallen to 81. His work there during some of the conflict’s most intense years placed him in periodic danger, as rural Tolima was a key battleground between the FARC and government forces. But it made a difference: a late 2020 census counted 2,895 yellow-eared parrots in the preserve.
Cardona’s likely killers are not known. “It is outrageous that the second most biodiverse country on the planet continues to lose its great defenders to violence,” read a statement from Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute.
In more dismaying news, Francisco Javier Vera, an 11-year-old environmental activist in Cundinamarca, received a grisly threat of death and torture this week in a comment posted to his Twitter account.
- Sign up for Con Líderes Hay Paz, WOLA’s new digital advocacy campaign in support of Colombia’s threatened Afro-descendant and indigenous social leaders and human rights defenders.
- Iván Márquez, the FARC leader who headed the guerrillas’ negotiating team in Havana then rearmed in 2019, released a video endorsing the idea of a recall vote to remove President Duque. At the request of Colombia’s National Police, Twitter shut down Márquez’s account, and that of his longtime dissident collaborator Jesús Santrich. YouTube followed suit. National Security Advisor Rafael Guarín tweeted that Márquez will be “taken down” like Pablo Escobar.
- The Duque government is inexplicably removing the Interior Ministry security detail for Iván Velásquez, the former auxiliary magistrate who suffered extensive illegal surveillance while investigating the “para-politics” scandal, then went on to head Guatemala’s CICIG anti-corruption body.
- The restart of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing regions, which was likely to begin in the first months of 2021, may be delayed for weeks or months further. A judge in Nariño accepted an injunction (tutela) filed by Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, alleging that required prior consultations have been insufficient.
- El Espectador produced worthwhile sets of infographics about the reintegration of ex-combatants and implementation of the PDETs.
- Sixteen women were killed in Colombia during the first thirteen days of 2021, a sharp rise in the rate of femicides.
- President Duque reiterated his government’s refusal to offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans in Colombia, saying it would cause “a stampede.”
- At War on the Rocks, Andrew Ivey explores “integral action” as a direction for the Colombian military’s post-conflict role. While we don’t share his conclusion that the military should play eminently civilian roles like carrying out development projects, Ivey presents detailed information about the evolution of the armed forces’ thinking.
Weekly border update: January 15, 2021
You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.
Trump visits border wall in Texas
The Rio Grande Valley border town of Alamo, Texas, whose municipal officials received no official notice from the White House, hosted an abruptly planned January 12 visit from Donald Trump. It was the outgoing president’s first public appearance since the January 6 riot in the Capitol building. There, before an audience made up mainly of Border Patrol agents and DHS officials, Trump commemorated the construction of 450 miles of border wall during his administration.
“450 miles. Nobody realizes how big this is.… We gave you 100% of what you wanted so now you have no excuses,” he told the laughing crowd of assembled agents. Trump autographed a plaque affixed to the wall, then returned to Washington where, that same evening, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence to use the 25th Amendment to remove him. The next day, the House impeached him for a second time.
The previous week, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan had told reporters that wall-building contractors were completing between 1.5 and 2 miles of new barrier each day, on pace to complete 475 miles by Trump’s likely final day in office, January 20. A CBP/Army Corps of Engineers update reported that 453 miles had been completed as of January 8. From this and past updates we can conclude that, of those 453:
- 47 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
- 158 replaced existing, shorter pedestrian fencing;
- 193 replaced existing vehicle barrier; and
- 55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.
In all, then, the Trump administration built 240 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. Of the 453 miles, roughly 5% are in Texas, the state that makes up about 64% of the border. The topography of the Rio Grande and the predominance of private landholdings along the border complicate express wall-building in Texas, though the Trump administration has begun dozens of eminent-domain processes to seize border-zone land from Texas property owners.
To date, the administration has directed about $16.3 billion for wall construction; the Washington Post reported in December that at least $3.3 billion will be unused as of January 20. Despite Trump’s repeated pledges, Mexico has not paid for any construction.
CBP’s Morgan said that the administration plans to contract out another 300 miles “probably by January 17, 18, 19.” Those hasty arrangements will almost certainly be canceled once Joe Biden takes office; the President-Elect has said“there will not be another foot” of wall built during his administration. It remains to be seen whether Biden will act immediately to exercise “convenience clauses” to cancel existing contracts with private builders, which would involve paying termination fees-and, if so, whether his administration would go still further, downgrading or disassembling segments of Trump’s wall in environmentally sensitive areas and Native American sacred sites.
Security forces mobilize against possible “caravan” in Central America
Since December, social media messages in Central America, especially Honduras, have been calling for a new “caravan” of migrants. Many indicate an intention to depart from the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, on January 15.
In recent years, migrants have attempted “caravans”-hundreds or even thousands traveling en masse-as a way to migrate without paying thousands of dollars to a smuggler, while using safety in numbers to avoid the extreme dangers of the migrant trail through Mexico.
Under pressure from the Trump administration, security forces in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras dispersed attempted caravans, long before they came anywhere near the United States, in April and October 2019, and in January, October, and December 2020. It has been more than two years since a significant number of migrants traveling by “caravan” has reached the U.S. border. Migrants who pay steep fees to smugglers-whose business depends on official corruption along the migrant trail-continue to reach the U.S. border.
Whether in caravans or not, officials, advocates, and experts expect a steady increase in migration from Central America this year. COVID-19 and two November hurricanes have left millions in desperate conditions. In Honduras alone (population 9.7 million), 600,000 people have lost their employment since the pandemic began. This is on top of the large number of migrants who, as in past years, have fled Central America due to threats against their lives from criminal organizations and a lack of government protection.
About 250 migrants departed the San Pedro Sula bus station ahead of the scheduled date, on January 13. According to press reports, as of January 14 they were stranded on the city’s outskirts as police in riot gear assembled on the highway. An officer told AP “the intention was to stop the migrants from violating a pandemic-related curfew, check their documents and make sure they weren’t traveling with children that were not their own.”
Caravan participants will face similar blockages further along the route. On January 11 officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico met in the Honduran border city of Corinto, near San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean, to discuss migration coordination. While they stated that “migration is a right,” the government representatives said that all travelers will require passports, proof of parentage for any children, and proof of recent negative COVID-19 tests. On January 13 an 11-nation body, the Regional Conference on Migration, issued an “extraordinary declaration” pledging to increase cooperation amid “concern about irregular flows of migrants.”
Authorities in Honduras and Guatemala say they are deploying thousands of military personnel to interdict caravan participants. Guatemala, which even plans to use its Air Force, has declared a 15-day “state of prevention” in seven of its twenty-two departments (provinces) east of the central highlands. There, police and troops may restrict freedom of assembly and limit the population’s movements.
- Katie Tobin, an official at UNHCR’s Washington office with long experience on asylum, will begin work next week as senior director for transborder security on Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
- Winding down the “Remain in Mexico” program and treating asylum seekers more humanely “requires the active partnership of the Mexican government,” Leon Krauze points out in the Washington Post. Meanwhile Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s choice for National Security Advisor, spoke on January 6 with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard about “a ‘new approach’ to migration issues that ‘offers alternatives to undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States,'” Reuters reported.
- Border Patrol agents in Texas’s Del Rio Sector recovered the body of a pregnant 33-year-old Haitian woman from the Rio Grande on January 8. They later determined that Mexican authorities had recovered the body of her husband from the river a few days earlier.
- The Trump administration has rushed through a host of 11th-hour regulations and immigration court decisionsfurther limiting the right to seek asylum in the United States, which may take the Biden administration months to undo if it so chooses.
- In response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by El Paso reporter Robert Moore, who was seeking information about a CBP crowd control exercise and metering of asylum seekers at ports of entry, the agency told a judge that “[t]he earliest it could start producing the requested records was June 30, 2021, and it would take up to six years to complete.”
5 links from the past week
- The Justice Department’s Inspector-General released a scathing and detailed report, years in the making, about the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” or family separation policy. It lays blame at the feet of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top officials, for whom separating asylum-seeking migrant families without documenting the parent-child relationship was a feature—a “deterrent”—not a bug.
- Investigators at El Salvador’s El Faro find that a healthy top MS-13 leader was taken out of maximum security prison for “medical emergency” reasons, a likely result of negotiations between the gang and the government of Nayib Bukele.
- At Criterio, Aimée Cárcamo takes a deep dive into Honduras’s disappointing experience with reforming its 18,486-member national police force since 2012. It concludes that police “purification” can’t succeed in the midst of a “narco-dictatorship.”
- Days after declining to prosecute its former defense minister, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, whom U.S. agents arrested last November in Los Angeles on suspicion of working with drug traffickers, Mexico’s government shared the 750-page collection of evidence that the U.S. Justice Department gathered about the case. Most of it is text messages.
- Human Rights Watch’s latest World Report found a lot of backsliding throughout the region in 2020.
Latin America-related online events this week
Not a lot this week: I only saw the three big nomination hearings Tuesday (I don't include Treasury because it's the one where Latin America is least likely to come up):
Tuesday, January 19
- 10:00 at hsgac.senate.gov: Hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Nomination of the Honorable Alejandro N. Mayorkas to be Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- 2:00 at foreign.senate.gov: Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Nomination of Antony J. Blinken to be Secretary of State.
- 3:00 at armed-services.senate.gov: Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nomination of Lloyd J. Austin III to be Secretary of Defense.
Some tweets that made me laugh this week
Soon, I'll go back to posting 5 or so per week. But let's just get through all of this first.