I think I speak for everyone in the United States when I say I'm glad we are finished with January 2021. While we entered it with the Capitol building intact, we also started January with a president spreading dangerous lies on his Twitter account, Mitch McConnell running the Senate, and millions fewer people vaccinated. All of that has changed.
If I could talk to the January 1 version of me, I'd say, "Hang in there, it's not going to be pretty, but things will be at least somewhat better by the end of the month." I'd also say, "This is going to sound weird, but buy some GameStop stock."
Anyway, my last week of January was quieter—no presentations, fewer interviews, much writing but nothing big that's ready to share yet. So here are some regular updates.
Colombia peace update: January 30, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Transitional justice tribunal issues first indictment of FARC leadership, for kidnapping
Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.
The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.
The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.
The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)
The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.
If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.
Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibilitythat a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)
The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-levelFARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.
From U.S. diplomats, a new tone on peace accord implementation
The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.
During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:
- Tweets on the U.S. embassy’s account (1) (2) (3).
- A conversation between just-confirmed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Claudia Blum.
- Interviews in Colombian media with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.
“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:
- On peace accord implementation: “We’ve seen some progress, but we’ve also seen some problems with implementation, including opposition from illegal groups.”
- On social-leader killings and security: “This problem of massacres and attacks against certain groups and leaders is something that needs much more attention. …The government is fighting them [illegal armed groups], but evidently it has not set a policy to prevent the problems they cause.”
- On aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas: “This time, the fumigation, the aerial spraying, will be the total responsibility of the Colombian government. We’re going to help them in certain aspects, but they’re going to buy the glyphosate, they’re going to control the planes, it’s not contractors, as before. So now it will be completely different.”
- On governing party members’ meddling in the U.S. election: “If there are some frictions as a result of that, we’re going to overcome it. It wasn’t President Duque or his cabinet, but some politicians.”
U.S. returns paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo, a voracious child rapist
On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.
Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.
Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
- Colombia’s Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, died of COVID-19-related pneumonia on the evening of January 26. Trujillo was a leading contender to be the ruling Centro Democrático party’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election.
- The FARC political party, recognizing that its acronym is a political liability (see kidnapping discussion above), officially changed its name to Comunes (“common people”).
- Between January 1 and 24, the JEP counted “14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the security forces, 13 death threats against social leaders, 6 massacres, 5 assassinations of former combatants of the FARC-EP, 14 homicides of social leaders, 3 attacks and 7 armed confrontations between illegal groups.”
- As of November, there were 1.71 million Venezuelans in Colombia (over 3% of Colombia’s population), of whom 770,246 had “regular migration status,” according to the latest situation update from UNHCR.
- A report from the Peace Accords Matrix program at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute finds implementation of the peace accord’s ethnic provisions to be lagging. “Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun implementation.”
- “We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living,” reads a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris from Francia Márquez, a Cauca-based Afro-Descendant environmental leader and winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
- El Espectador hosted a worthwhile panel on implementation of the peace accord’s vital rural reform chapter, with two top officials, the lead author of a critical January report from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), a Kroc Institute expert, and an activist from Caquetá. Video here, summary here.
- The newspaper also produced an excellent multimedia feature on women searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
- With Panama’s border closed due to COVID-19, about 1,000 U.S.-bound migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and several African countries are stranded in makeshift tents on a beach in Necoclí, in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region, according to AFP.
- Threats and killings—most likely by the ELN, although other armed groups are present—forced 11 town council members to flee the municipality of Argelia, in southern Cauca department.
- The latest bimonthly Gallup poll, whose time series for some questions goes back to the late 1990s, shows growing discontent on many issues. La Silla Vacía shares the full poll as a Google Doc. Favorability ratings for the military and police have recovered a bit after scandals, though they remain low in part because of enforcement of pandemic lockdowns. Joe Biden has a 60%-11% favorable-unfavorable rating. By a 69%-24% margin, respondents see peace accord implementation as “on the wrong track.”
Weekly border update: January 29, 2021
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bodies of 19 missing migrants found in Tamaulipas, Mexico
Police responding to a call on January 22 made a grisly discovery in a rural zone of Camargo municipality, in Mexico’s violence-torn border state of Tamaulipas, about 45 miles from Texas. A burned-out pickup truck by a dirt road containedthe incinerated bodies of 19 people, whom it seems were shot to death elsewhere and incinerated there.
The victims appear to be migrants from Central America who had hoped to reach the United States. Most or all may be from San Marcos, a department of western Guatemala that borders southern Mexico.
Nothing is confirmed until comparisons with relatives’ DNA are complete, a process that might take about two weeks. But just as they were passing through Tamaulipas late last week, a group of migrants from the towns of Comitancillo, Tuilelen, and Sipacapa—where most residents’ first language is Mam, an indigenous dialect—abruptly stopped contacting relatives back home via WhatsApp.
Most of the missing and presumed dead were in their late teens or early 20s. They had paid a smuggler to take them—“$2,100 upfront,” a mother of one of the victims told Vice—but that did not guarantee safety from Mexican organized crime.
“Camargo is near the edge of territory historically controlled by factions of the Gulf cartel and in recent years a remnant of the Zetas known as the Northeast cartel has tried to take over,” the Guardian reported. Camargo residents cited in the Mexican magazine Proceso pointed to the Northeast cartel as the likely killers.
The tragedy illustrates the outrageous degree of liberty with which criminal groups operate in Tamaulipas and other poorly governed, corruption-riven zones of Mexico, and the danger this poses to migrants. Tamaulipas is where the notorious San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants took place in 2010, and alarming crimes have been frequent since then.
“The toleration of these aberrant crimes demonstrates the lack of protection for the migrant population in Mexico,” read a statement from many non-governmental organizations. Rubén Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano toldVice, “These massacres are continuous. It’s an ongoing massacre. Sometimes they are big like this one. Sometimes it’s just two of three people that are assassinated, disappeared.”
Border wall construction pause goes into effect
One of President Biden’s January 20 proclamations ordered all construction of the Trump administration’s border wall to pause within seven days. Then, for the next sixty days, agencies are to review procedures for “redirecting funding and repurposing contracts.”
For days after January 20, activists at several points along the border denounced that construction crews weren’t stopping. “It’s a lie, I saw huge bulldozers digging up dirt on mountainsides, the crews were carving out new sections in some places and moving steel bollards closer to installation sites in others,” John Kurc, a filmmaker and photographer, told the Guardian. The Sky Island Alliance, an Arizona environmental defense group, set up a crowdsourced page to document continuing activity.
By the 27th, though, it appeared that wall construction had largely stopped. Now, the new administration must set about finding out what is left of:
- $9.9 billion in Defense Department funds, which were to pay for 466 miles of wall, about 343 of which were completed; and
- $5.8 billion in congressionally appropriated funds and $0.6 billion in Treasury seized asset forfeiture funds, which were to pay for well over 300 miles (the mileage to be built with 2021 funds is unknown), about 110 miles of which were completed.
By April 22, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Justice, along with the White House Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council, are to come up with a plan for redirecting remaining funds, cancelling contracts, and (presumably) withdrawing eminent domain claims.
Some are suggesting using the money for border security technologies instead of fencing, an option that raises civil liberties and environment concerns. An unnamed “frontline CBP officer” told the Nation “that they had concerns about the growth of this technology, especially with the agency ‘expanding its capabilities and training its armed personnel to act as a federal police.’”
Border advocates are instead calling for investment to mitigate damage that wall-building did to fragile ecosystems and culturally sacred sites. “The right thing to do would be to tear them all down,” Laiken Jordahl of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity told Fronteras Desk. But “of course we have to be realistic with our demands. We certainly want to focus our energy on removing sections of barriers in wildlife corridors, in sacred areas to indigenous nations. In waterways where they’re stopping the flow of water.” Scientific American notes that this remediation is so necessary that “far more sites need restoration than funding would allow.”
Justice Department rescinds the “zero tolerance” rule
Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson has done away with the Justice Department’s notorious April 6, 2018 “zero tolerance” memo. Issued by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, this order called on the Justice Department to prosecute, in the federal criminal courts, the largest possible number of undocumented migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, a misdemeanor.
This policy applied equally to asylum seekers, and it led to an outrageous expansion of family separations at the border. In about 3,000 cases, parents went into criminal custody while children got treated as unaccompanied minors. A scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report found that Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from zero tolerance, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.
The revocation of “zero tolerance” is largely symbolic: the horrified national outcry forced Donald Trump to order a stop to most family separations in June 2018. And now, under the “Title 42” COVID-19 border policy, nearly all Central American or Mexican parents with children are being swiftly expelled back into Mexico without a proper chance to ask for asylum.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, keeps rolling back Trump-era policies. Next week the White House may releasethree or more executive orders seeking to:
- Set up a task force to reunify families separated by zero tolerance;
- Address “root causes” of migration in Central America;
- Improve and increase border-zone processing of asylum seekers;
- End “safe third country” agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras;
- End a Trump administration rule barring asylum to people who passed through a third country and didn’t seek asylum there first;
- Reinstate the Central American Minors Program that allows children to apply for protection in their home countries;
- Help strengthen Mexico’s asylum system; and
- Increase refugee admissions.
The White House had originally slated these EOs’ publication for January 29, though there was no formal public announcement confirming that. They are being delayed by a few days as “details are still being worked out.”
- WOLA released statements this week calling on Mexico to do more to protect migrants and punish those who abuse them, following the Tamaulipas massacre; and about the need for Mexico’s government to collaborate with the dismantling of “Remain in Mexico.”
- A new U.S. Government Accountability Office report finds that, between October 2019 and March 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) put about 5,290 recently apprehended asylum seekers through two ultra-rapid border-zone adjudication programs, HARP and PACR. Of these, only 23 percent passed initial credible fear screenings and were allowed to pursue their claims; before HARP and PACR, “74 percent of people passed their credible fear interview and were allowed to continue to seek asylum,” according to the ACLU. (We understand that the DHS Inspector-General will be releasing its own report on HARP and PACR on January 29.)
- On January 26 Texas Southern District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, slapped a 14-day temporary restraining order on the 100-day deportation moratorium that President Biden had mandated on January 20. The order comes from a lawsuit brought by Texas’s archconservative attorney-general, Ken Paxton, who has made recent headlines by leading lawsuits against Biden’s Electoral College victory and against Obamacare. At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern contends that this order from a judge who “does not appear to have a rudimentary understanding of…immigration law” doesn’t actually compel the Biden administration to deport anyone.
- “It is more difficult to transit through Mexico to the Mexico-U.S. border. This new phenomenon has been changing Mexico from a transit country to, in some cases, a country in which African migrants are settling temporarily or permanently,” finds a thorough new report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI).
- At CNN, veteran political analyst Ron Brownstein offers a detailed look at what lies ahead for the Biden administration’s immigration reform push, particularly the prospects for getting enough votes in the Senate.
- James McHenry, who headed the Justice Department’s immigration court system (EOIR) during the Trump years, is stepping down. McHenry had established decision quotas and other measures that “made judges feel as if they were cogs in a deportation machine,” according to BuzzFeed.
- The ICE detention facility in El Paso, which is much criticized for miserable conditions, is run by a subsidiary of a company run by members of a native Alaskan nation, who mostly live on an island a few miles from Russia. El Paso Matters tells the story of Bering Straits Native Corporation, which barely responded to its many inquiries.
Latin America-related online events this week
Tuesday, February 2
- 10:00–11:00 at americasquarterly.org: The New Face of Multilateralism Under Biden (RSVP required).
- 10:00–12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Ninth Annual US-Mexico Security Conference: Part 2 (RSVP required).
- 12:00–1:30 at eventbrite.com: Adelante: The Other Side (RSVP required).
- 6:00 at insightcrime.org: A Deep Dive Into Guatemala’s Criminal Dynamics and Its Borders (RSVP required).
Wednesday, February 3
- 9:00–10:30 at eventbrite.com: Digital Technology and the Fight Against Corruption in Latin America (RSVP required).
- 9:00–10:30 at Zoom: Fiscalías y Estado de Derecho (RSVP required).
- 10:00 at Zoom: Cuba ante la Agenda 2030. Cumplimiento del #ODS5 (RSVP required).
- 11:30–12:45 at Zoom: Fiscalías y Estado de Derecho (RSVP required).
- 12:00–1:00 at seaif.org: Corrupción en Centroamérica: desafíos, derrotas y destellos de esperanza (RSVP required).
- 12:30–1:30 at wilsoncenter.org: The Future of U.S.-Mexico Relations (RSVP required).
Thursday, February 4
- 9:00 at gijn.org: Keeping Alive the Work of Silenced Journalists (RSVP required).
- 9:00–10:15 at Zoom: Fiscalías y Estado de Derecho (RSVP required).
- 10:00 at oversight.house.gov: Hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Issues on Accountability and Lessons Learned from the Trump Administration’s Child Separation Policy.
- 10:00 at migrationpolicy.org: Prospects for a U.S. Legalization Program and the Unauthorized Immigrant Groups that Could Factor in the Debate (RSVP required).
- 11:30–12:45 at Zoom: Fiscalías y Estado de Derecho (RSVP required).
- 3:00 at Zoom: Black LGBT Rights and Activism in Brazil (RSVP required).
Friday, February 5
- 10:00–11:00 at csis.org: A Conversation with Martha Bárcena, Outgoing Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S.(RSVP required).
5 links from the past week
- Colombia’s transitional justice system’s historic indictment of the former top FARC leadership, for kidnapping 21,396 people, is linked at the bottom of this press statement, along with a large, devastating collection of excerptsfrom victims’ testimonies.
- At Scientific American, April Reese looks at the challenges that stand in the way of restoring the environmental damage done by the Trump administration’s rush to build miles of border wall.
- Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive eulogizes Chilean judge Juan Guzmán Tapia, who died on January 22. Guzmán dared to prosecute Augusto Pinochet for human rights crimes starting in 2000. “His pioneering judicial investigations opened the door to hundreds of human rights prosecutions in Chile.”
- The Pinochet government coerced thousands of Chilean mothers into giving up their children for adoption by parents in wealthier countries. Now many adults are learning troubling things about their origins, Aaron Nelson recounts in the Guardian.
- There are between nine and nineteen “high impact” criminal groups operating in Mexico, with two dominant ones—the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels—plus at least 100 small groups, according to a Revista Zeta analysis at SinEmbargo.