This is my 50th send-out in 2 1/2 years. Which means, if you do the math, that these emails are hardly "weekly." But I'll keep that word in the title, because I like aspiring to things.
It was an eventful week for issues I work on. The evil "Remain in Mexico" program is finally being wound down, even as the Texas-Mexico border went into a rare deep freeze. A surprisingly good piece of immigration, border, and Central America aid legislation just dropped in Congress. Colombia was shocked to learn that its military likely killed far more innocent people during the 2000s than most had thought. The army's commander responded by tweeting a wildlife video comparing the institution's critics to snakes.
Find out about all that, and more, in the posts below: a podcast on El Salvador, Colombia and border updates, 5 longread links, 18 online events that I know of, and 7 tweets that made me laugh last week.
WOLA Podcast: A Critical Moment for El Salvador’s Democracy
With an assist from WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, I booked a fantastic but deeply troubling conversation with two fighters for democracy in El Salvador, Mauricio Silva and José Luis Sanz. This is a rough moment for a democracy born at a moment of hope, when El Salvador negotiated the end of its conflict in the early 90s.
El Salvador’s citizens go to the polls on February 28 to elect a new legislature and mayors. Nuevas Ideas, the party of President Nayib Bukele, is expected to gain a strong majority. This raises concerns because Bukele, though quite popular, is eroding institutional checks and balances, blocking access to information, infringing on independent media and freedom of expression, and politicizing the armed forces.
The implications for U.S. policy are significant, as the new Biden administration proposes a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, along with similar priorities, in Central America.
We discuss this with two experts who give us a comprehensive view of what’s at stake:
- Mauricio Silva, a member of WOLA’s Board of DIrectors, worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for 20 years, 10 of them as a member of the IDB’s Board as director for El Salvador and Central America.
- José Luis Sanz, a veteran investigative journalist, was the director of the independent media outlet El Faro (The Beacon) between 2014 and late 2020. He is moving to Washington to serve as El Faro’s correspondent.
Colombia peace update: February 20, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
JEP finds a large number of “false positive” killings
Colombia’s post-conflict justice system (JEP) issued a dramatic order on February 18, explaining how it plans to investigate and prosecute its “Macro-Case 03: Deaths illegitimately presented by state agents as combat casualties.” These war crimes, called “false positives,” involved security-force (usually Army) personnel killing civilians, then presenting the dead as armed-group members killed in combat, in order to earn rewards.
The JEP’s most surprising finding was its topline number. Security forces murdered at least 6,402 civilians, the tribunal contends, in the seven years between 2002, the first year of Álvaro Uribe’s presidential administration, and 2008, when a scandal involving 19 murdered young men from a poor neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts broke the scandal open.
6,402 is equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed between 2002 and 2008. It is nearly triple the 2,248 cases, dating from between 1988 and 2014, that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) had shared with the JEP. Colombian human rights organizations called the Fiscalía’s undercounting “infuriating.”
The actual number is probably higher than 6,402; the JEP “is still receiving reports to contrast” with its database, La Silla Vacía reports, adding, “For each, the JEP has already identified the name, surname and identity card number,” and each appears in at least three of four governmental and non-governmental databases the tribunal consulted. In addition, some FARC members who demobilized during that period may have been killed later and counted as combatants. And many more cases may still be in the files of the military justice system, not the civilian Fiscalía.
On January 28, the JEP had indicted seven top FARC leaders for their role in kidnappings, with the intention of moving down the chain of command to on-the-ground perpetrators. The false positives investigation, though, is to go “bottom up,” starting with soldiers and officers, then moving up the ladder to top commanders who, today, deny any responsibility for the killings. (The FARC leaders, by contrast, appear poised to accept responsibility for kidnappings.)
That means proving that the practice of killing civilians to receive rewards, a phenomenon that the UN and other human rights monitors began denouncing around 2004, was systematic—a claim given new credibility by the startlingly high number of 6,402 cases. With this order complete, the JEP is to focus its investigations on Antioquia, the Caribbean coast, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, and Meta.
Ex-president Uribe, calling the JEP order “another outrage,” denied responsibility for the killings, saying that while of course he placed strong demands on the military, “effectiveness is not an excuse to violate the law.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and some NGOs and victims’ groups, hailed the JEP’s action. A statement from several groups worried, though, that the JEP’s “bottom up” approach might go too slow, failing to touch the military’s top ex-commanders before the tribunal’s 10-year mandate ends in 2028.
Opposition legislators’ report finds peace accord implementation slipping behind
Fourteen Colombian legislators from the political opposition, spanning six parties, issued the latest in a series of data-rich reports monitoring the government’s compliance with commitments made in the 2016 peace accords. The driving force behind these reports is Green Party Representative Juanita Goebertus, who was a member of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.
The official most responsible for accord implementation in President Iván Duque’s government, High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, challenged some of the legislators’ claims with a point-by-point Twitter thread, to which Rep. Goebertus then responded with a point-by-point rebuttal thread.
The report finds the Colombian government falling further behind in implementing the accord, especially its provisions related to rural governance and crop substitution. Among its numerous findings:
- Colombia’s Congress has yet to pass 38 percent of laws required to implement the accord, including 21 of 36 laws required to carry out its first chapter on rural reform and territorial governance, a vital element given the heavily rural nature of the conflict. This chapter is estimated to comprise 85 percent of the total cost of implementing the accord.
- The Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs), a core strategy meant to bring governance and development to 16 conflict-battered regions over 15 years, are running badly behind schedule. The government is spending less than 2 percent of what it should be to maintain a 15-year pace on the largest item, infrastructure projects. While Archila insisted that these projects are being completed at a healthy pace, Goebertus said that pace slowed by 46 percent in 2020.
- In only 3 of 16 PDET zones has the government completed a promised “roadmap” document needed to speed up investments, and no PDET projects have begun in the highly conflictive central Pacific coast region.
- The government is formalizing smallholders’ land properties at 29.5% of the pace that fulfillment of the peace accord’s promised 7 million hectares would require, and only 4 of 170 PDET municipalities have yet had landholdings mapped out in a promised cadaster.
- The accords’ crop substitution program promised assistance with productive projects, starting 12 months in, for families who eradicated all their coca. In year four, only 5.3% of families have received productive project support.
- 54.5 percent of guerrilla ex-combatants have not received government support for productive projects. Archila says that 6,172 people—about half of ex-combatants—have benefited from productive projects, and “1,214 people, who still haven’t formulated a project, have jobs.”
Draft decree outlines resumption of aerial herbicide fumigation
Since taking power in August 2018, President Iván Duque and his government have vowed to re-start spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft to eradicate coca. A U.S.-backed “fumigation” program, a significant part of the “Plan Colombia” strategy, operated from 1994 to 2015.
Public health concerns forced the program’s suspension that year. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court then laid out a series of six health, environmental, consultation, and safety requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the program. One of those steps is the emission of a decree laying out how fumigation would operate. The government produced an 11-page draft decree in December 2019, but never issued a final document. On February 15, the Justice Ministry produced a new, 20-page, draft decree.
This document prohibits spraying in “the National and Regional Natural Park Systems, strategic ecosystems such as páramos, Ramsar category wetlands and mangroves, bodies of water, and population centers.” It does not mention indigenous reserves or Afro-Descendant community council lands. As the Constitutional Court requires, it calls on Colombia’s National Health Institute (INS, roughly similar to the CDC) and environmental authority (ANLA) to sign off on the spray program’s safety after performing studies, which have been underway since at least early 2020. The Counternarcotics Police would have to provide monthly spray reports to the ANLA, the Ministry of Health, and other oversight agencies.
Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano, recently insisted that all conditions for re-starting spraying might be met by late March, but experts interviewed in Colombian media see approval being delayed for months more. “This decree won’t accelerate the process,” María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drug Studies (CESED) told El Espectador.
The draft decree is just one of several unmet criteria, including the INS and ANLA sign-offs and a green light from the multi-agency National Drugs Commission (CNE). Via the Colombian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia learned that, as of September, the INS health study had only completed work in 7 of 14 departments where fumigation was expected to occur. The ANLA approval, meanwhile, is being delayed by two court challenges seeking to uphold vulnerable communities’ ability to participate in the process.
Should the Duque government meet all of the Constitutional Court’s requirements to restart fumigation, there will be legal challenges—and it’s not certain whether the Court will approve of the program’s design. Its rulings have notedthat glyphosate spraying, as the 2016 peace accord explains, is meant to be a last resort after other options have received higher priority, like voluntary crop substitution and manual eradication. The draft decree does not mention this prioritization. Nor does it mention prior consultation with indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, an omission that the Constitutional Court may object to, Vélez contends.
- In public statements, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro criticized Colombia’s decision to grant a legal status to Venezuelan migrants inside Colombia, calling it a “clown show” and accusing President Iván Duque of using it to “clean up his image.” Maduro also said he’d told his country’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need,” in response to Duque’s announcement of a new elite army unit to go after armed group leaders who spend a lot of their time in Venezuela.
- The Colombian government submitted a report to the JEP finding that the former FARC is lagging badly behind its commitments, under the peace accord, to turn in illegally obtained assets. The Comunes party replied that the government’s imposed deadline of December 31, 2020 was “impossible to meet due to legal and physical constraints,” like security conditions in areas where the ex-FARC assets are located.
- Two Colombian think tanks, CINEP and CERAC, which play a formal role in verifying implementation of the peace accord, issued their eighth in a series of data-heavy reports.
- The ambassador to Colombia of Norway, which along with Cuba was a guarantor nation for peace talks with the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, voiced perplexity that Colombia’s government did not respond positively to Cuba warning of intelligence pointing to a possible ELN attack in Colombia. Meanwhile, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry put out a communiqué noting a tense meeting with Cuba’s ambassador and reiterating a demand that Cuba provide more information about the purported imminent attack.
- Writing for Razón Pública, four analysts from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz disputed claims that the ELN might be in danger of collapsing under its own internal divisions.
- Colombia’s left-of-center political parties have been reluctant to enter into coalitions with the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, for the March 2022 presidential and congressional elections, La Silla Vacía reports.
- Fighting between FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan Neo-paramilitary group displaced more than 250 people from the rural zone of the chronically violent municipality of Ituango, in north-central Antioquia.
- Colombia’s GDP contracted 6.8 percent during 2020 due to the pandemic—the worst year since records began in 1905—though it expanded 6 percent during the final quarter of the year.
Weekly Border Update: February 19, 2021
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. Citizenship Act introduced
We’ve known the name and general outlines of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 since the Biden administration’s first moments. On February 18, the actual 353-page text of the Democrats’ flagship immigration reform bill went public in the House and Senate. The bill’s principal sponsors, who coordinated closely with the administration, are Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California), who introduced it with a press conference.
This is the most comprehensive legislative attempt at immigration reform since a 2013 bill that passed the Democratic-majority Senate, with many concessions to Republicans, only to fail in a Republican-majority House. It would provide a path to citizenship for most currently undocumented people in the United States, resolve the situation of “Dreamers” and TPS holders, overhaul asylum and refugee law, and much else.
The bill’s passage is far from assured. It would need unanimous Democratic support in the Senate, and while the filibuster remains in place, at least 10 Republican votes. The administration has indicated it is open to the idea of breaking the bill up into pieces.
The U.S. Citizenship Act’s U.S.-Mexico border-related provisions include:
- Providing Central America with $1 billion per year in assistance each year from 2022 through 2025 to address the “root causes” of migration. The “Strategy for Engagement with Central America” focuses on reforms and improvements, placing anti-corruption and rule of law first, followed by anti-violence and anti-poverty efforts. Security aid appears to be mostly non-lethal, with an emphasis on investigative techniques. Aid is conditioned on progress along 11 measures.
- Helping other countries in the region expand their own refugee and asylum systems, while creating U.S. refugee processing centers in Central America and reviving the Central America Minors Program that Donald Trump terminated in 2017.
- Establishing a Central American Family Reunification Parole Program for victims of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
- Building up technology on the border. This includes scanners and infrastructure at aging ports of entry, and “smart technology” elsewhere at the border with “independent oversight on privacy rights,” a significant concern of border communities. The bill seeks to reduce migrant deaths in the desert by deploying rescue beacons.
- Expanding “officer safety and professionalism”—not quite a cultural overhaul—at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel. This means training and continuing education covering community policing, cultural awareness, interaction with vulnerable populations, and similar needs. It also means setting up a “Border Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee,” new use of force policies, and a ratio of one internal affairs employee for every 30 CBP officers.
- Improving humanitarian and medical standards for migrants during time spent in CBP custody, including adopting child welfare standards and hiring trained personnel.
- Expanding the Justice Department’s investigations of migrant smugglers, and expanding FBI-DEA Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces in Central America.
- After asylum seekers are paroled at the border, keeping them “in the system” by expanding alternatives to detention programs, reducing immigration courts’ backlogs by building up adjudication capacity, and allowing court-appointed counsel for unaccompanied children and especially vulnerable migrants. The bill makes numerous other adjustments to the asylum process.
Rep. Sanchez has filed the bill in the House, and Sen. Menendez will do so next week, when the Senate comes back in session.
Remain in Mexico admissions to start February 19
The new administration’s most visible change to the immigration system gets underway at the border on February 19. The process of winding down the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, known formally as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), is to begin at the San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego.
With the Mexican government’s acquiescence, since January 2019 MPP forced over 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil. This often meant waiting in border towns, under impoverished and unsafe conditions. About 25,000 people still have open cases; many have been waiting since 2019. In January the Biden administration halted new admissions into MPP (though ports of entry remain closed to asylum seekers and most apprehended migrants are still expelled under pandemic measures), and began setting up a procedurefor MPP subjects to finish the asylum process while living in the United States with relatives or sponsors.
That process will involve online registration at a site (not active yet) run by the UN Refugee Agency and other international organizations. Asylum seekers will be prioritized according to how long they’ve been waiting or other “acute vulnerabilities.” When CBP is able to process them, they will be called to a staging area near one of three ports of entry (San Ysidro/San Diego, California; El Paso, Texas; or Brownsville, Texas) where the International Organization for Migration will test them for COVID-19 while still in Mexico. Processing will involve transferring asylum seekers’ cases to courts in interior U.S. cities where they plan to stay. Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas says that the plan is to scale up to processing about 300 people per day at each port. (WOLA this week offered a list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments to guarantee a fair and safe process.)
The record cold that blacked out most of Texas took a toll on those “remaining in Mexico.” At a makeshift camp across from Brownsville in Matamoros, “tents made out of blue tarp have iced over” and “water used for cooking and bathing has also frozen,” ABC News reported. “There is a real concern for frostbite, hypothermia,” nurse practitioner Andrea Leiner of Global Response, which has been attending to people at the camp, told the Dallas Morning News. “People don’t want to move to a shelter with a roof. They are afraid they will lose their spot in the MPP line.”
The “Remain in Mexico” wind-down has its critics. Though Arizona’s ports of entry are not involved, Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, wrote to Mayorkas complaining of “the hasty announcement” and “the lack of details provided to stakeholders in a border state.” Alan Bersin, a top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official during the Clinton and Obama administrations, told the Associated Press that the move—which he said owes to “such a pressing sense in the advocate community that is controlling the Biden immigration agenda”—will draw more migrants to the border.
Some Democratic members of Congress, Politico reported, also worry about triggering a spike in migration by going too fast on immigration reform and dismantling Trump’s measures. Though he says he backs reforms, Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas), whose district borders Mexico, told the publication, “The way we’re doing it right now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster in the middle of a pandemic… Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.”
Migration through Mexico is increasing
Most Trump-era restrictions on new asylum seekers, including pandemic “expulsions,” remain in place. Nonetheless, reports point to a recent jump in northbound migration through Mexico. This owes to perceptions, fed by smugglers, that the Biden administration will go easier on migrants. It also owes to a loosening of countries’ pandemic travel restrictions, and grave security and economic conditions worsened by COVID-19 and two severe November hurricanes in Central America.
The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute (INM) reported collaborating with military, police, and National Guard agents, on more than 50 raids since January 25 on the “La Bestia” cargo trains that often carry migrants, apprehending 1,189 people, 30 percent of them minors. Authorities apprehended hundreds of migrants at a time in the cargo containers of tractor-trailers on highways in Chiapas, Veracruz and Nuevo León. Associated Press interviews with migrant shelter and legal aid personnel in the southern Mexican cities of Tenosique, Palenque, and Tapachula found all experiencing a sharp increase in demand over 2020; the “La 72” shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, “has hosted nearly 1,500 migrants” so far in 2021, “compared to 3,000 all of last year.” Further south, AP notes, Panama’s January reopening of its border with South America has led to “some 1,500 migrants spread across various camps.”
At the U.S. border, Border Patrol agents in the Yuma sector of Arizona and California have apprehended 28 migrant children under 13 years of age since January 1, more than twice the number for the same period in the record-breaking year of 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported that DHS dropped off 341 migrant family members—many of them Cuban, Haitian, or Venezuelan—during the last week of January at a migrant shelter in remote Del Rio, Texas, and that in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, “an IOM-sponsored hotel housing migrants during the pandemic has been at capacity for the past few weeks.”
The statement from Mexico’s INM sees the change in U.S. administration as a key factor behind the increase: “In interviews with the Institute, the people who travel on these trains have stated that, given the change in immigration policy by the new U.S. government, they feel encouraged to reach northern Mexico by various routes.”
- The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters report on an Ecuadorian man and a Guatemalan man who recently fell from a new 30-foot section of border wall near El Paso: one broke both ankles and the other broke his back and pelvis. Border Patrol agents drove them 90 miles to a remote border crossing and expelled them, under Title 42, without medical attention, forcing them to walk across into Mexico.
- The San Diego Union-Tribune profiles Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who underwent abuse and trauma during her time in the force, and who now, accompanied by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, is one of its most outspoken critics. In late January, Border Patrol launched what it calls the “Fearless Five” campaign to commemorate the 5 percent of agents who are women, with a video comparing female agents to diamonds forged by extreme pressure.
- The latest in a nearly two-and-a-half-year series of updates from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center finds 16,250 asylum seekers on “metering” waitlists in nine Mexican border cities, up from 15,690 in November.
- A DHS memo obtained by BuzzFeed plans to direct officials to refrain from using words like “alien” and “illegal alien.”
- A report from the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute finds that “Thirteen border security companies’ executives and top employees contributed three times more to Joe Biden ($5,364,994) than to Donald Trump ($1,730,435)” during the 2020 campaign.
- Mexico’s government had promised to help “Remain in Mexico” subjects find employment while they awaited their hearing dates on Mexican soil, citing at least 3,700 jobs in border towns. In the end, Animal Político’s Alberto Pradilla revealed, only 64 people found work through the Mexican Labor Department’s efforts. Meanwhile, the same journalist reported, Mexican government programs to assist Central American communities, in order to address migration’s causes, only reached 6 percent of their originally planned population.
5 links from the past week
- Part 2 of an InsightCrime series about overlaps between government and organized crime in Central America’s Northern Triangle is a potboiler: an unflinching probe of Honduras’s governing National Party, which “since 2010 has become a federation that welcomes politicians and officials involved in criminal businesses ranging from timber to drug trafficking to the misappropriation of public funds.”
- Fourteen Colombian legislators from the political opposition, spanning six parties, issued the latest in a series of data-rich reports monitoring the government’s compliance with commitments made in the 2016 peace accords. They find the Colombian government falling ever further behind in implementing the accord.
- The San Diego Union-Tribune profiles Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who underwent abuse and trauma during her time in the force, and who now, accompanied by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, is one of its most outspoken critics. This is a very troubled agency.
- At OpenDemocracy, Robert Muggah brings both context and readability to a discussion of Brazil’s grim current political reality, the role of systemic racism, the legacy of the Worker’s Party, and why “Bolsonaro is the candidate to beat in the presidential elections in 2022—and by a wide margin.”
- Four researchers from Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation dispute claims that the ELN guerrilla group is facing a big internal schism. The ELN has always been divided, they say at Razón Pública—and the Colombian government has done little lately to weaken it.
Latin America-related online events this week
Tuesday, February 23
- 10:00–11:00 at csis.org: Brazil’s Accession to the OECD: A Conversation with Paulo Guedes, Brazilian Minister of the Economy (RSVP required).
- 10:00–11:15 at juridicas.unam.mx: Hacia Elecciones Transparentes y Participativas en el Sistema Interamericano de Derechos Humanos: una conversación con el Panel Independiente 2021 (RSVP required).
- 10:00–12:00 at uk.rodeemoseldialogo.org: Dis/information and Peace (RSVP required).
- 1:00 at Zoom: Tráfico de armas de Estados Unidos hacia México: Diagnóstico y propuestas (RSVP required).
- 2:00–3:30 at columbiauniversity.zoom.us: Police Violence in Comparative Perspective (RSVP required).
- 3:00: Cuban Entrepreneurship (RSVP required).
Wednesday, February 24
- 9:00–10:00 at thedialogue.org: China’s Global Energy Finance & China-Latin America Development Finance Database Updates (RSVP required).
- 2:00–3:15 at wilsoncenter.org: Rethinking Brazilian Development: The Political Economy of Democratic Brazil (RSVP required).
- 6:00 at Zoom: Hacia una política de integración de migrantes en México (RSVP required).
Thursday, February 25
- 8:00 at uniandes.edu.co: Alcances y contenidos de la reconciliación (RSVP required).
- 8:30–4:15 at sais.jhu.edu: Latin America in the World Order: Stepping Up (RSVP required).
- 9:00–4:45 at lack.fiu.edu: Extreme Events in Central America: Reducing Risk, Enhancing Resilience (RSVP required).
- 1:00–3:00 at uk.rodeemoseldialogo.org: Football and Nation-building in the Colombian Peace Process (RSVP required).
- 4:00–5:00 at csis.org: A Discussion with President Iván Duque on Granting Temporary Legal Protection to Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia (RSVP required).
- 6:30 at YouTube: Diálogos México-Colombia: Regulación de la Marihuana.
Friday, February 26
- 9:30–11:00 at thedialogue.org: The Road to Legal Abortion in Argentina (RSVP required).
- 12:00 at colmex-mx.zoom: Revolution in development. Mexico and the governance of the global economy(RSVP required).
- 2:00 at wola.org: Mapping Out Change: The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement (RSVP required).