Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #53

As the below updates on the border and Colombia make clear, last week was a pretty intense time. Not disastrous—there's some good news mixed in, and the new administration is slowly showing signs of moving in a good direction—but the pace is 24-7 right now. (Not kidding, I'm not even going to say what time it is as I write this—but let's just say I'm not enjoying moving our clocks forward here in the USA.)

It's not going to let up this week. The Biden administration will continue scrambling to shelter a large number of unaccompanied children. The Secretary of Homeland Security and the commanders of Northern and Southern Command will be testifying in Congress. WOLA is hosting an event Thursday on Colombia's "false positive" murders. I want to record a podcast this week (it's been a month), and we should have a new border analysis out shortly.

Oh, and I'm getting my first vaccine Tuesday morning, so there's something to look forward to.

Let's all have a good week—the end of winter here in the northern hemisphere.

The Biden administration and fumigation

Here is the English text of a column that ran March 10 in Colombia’s El Espectador.

The Biden administration and fumigation

by Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

“Why is Biden supporting fumigation? I’m so disappointed.” I heard this several times last week from friends in Colombia in the human rights, drug policy, and center-left political opposition communities. It seems they were expecting the new U.S. government to usher in a new era of drug policy in Colombia, and reality hit them in the face.

Their disappointment came mainly from two documents from the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. Congress requires the Department to certify that Colombia is following a strategy to eradicate 50 percent of its coca crop by 2023. It produced that document on February 23, with language celebrating that Iván Duque’s government has made “Significant progress…to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program” and that the late Minister of Defense “stated seven AT-802 spray planes were operationally ready to conduct aerial eradication.”

On March 2, the Department produced its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. That documentlaments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

To many Colombians who have lived through 35 years of forced eradication with poor results, this language looks like doubling down on failure. It may even be viewed as endorsing the Duque government’s view that Colombia’s chronic violence is a result not of unpunished corruption and rural areas’ abandonment, but of the persistence of a bush.

I asked my Colombian colleagues when they ever heard a Biden official say, on the record, that they oppose forced coca eradication. Yes, some people close to Joe Biden were members of the bipartisan commission whose very good December report cites “enormous costs and dismal results” from forced eradication. But then-Senator Joe Biden supported eradication in 2000, when the Congress was considering Plan Colombia, both in a Senate floor speech and a report.

There’s no reason for shock, then, at the past two week’s reports. Still, I don’t advise pessimism. Perspectives change. Plan Colombia began 20 years ago, and the results against coca and cocaine are hardly encouraging.

There’s still ample room for hope that the Biden administration can bring about a historic change in the U.S. approach to coca. Rather than expanding forced eradication, many in the new President’s circle prefer to talk about state presence in territory, provision of services, implementing the peace accord, titling farmers’ land, and building roads. They want to work with a Colombian government that has the will to do the hard work of integrating the countryside into national life. (Whether the current Colombian government has that will is immaterial: it will only be in power for 17 more months.)

A new U.S. approach doesn’t happen with Inauguration Day. There is lag time: U.S. policies don’t change quickly, especially when the presidential transition is as chaotic as ours was. It’s been nearly seven weeks and many key U.S. officials haven’t been named yet. Who will be the new White House Drug Czar? Who will run counter-narcotics at the State Department? Who will run Western Hemisphere Affairs? Who will manage counter-narcotics at the Defense Department? We don’t know yet: this will take months more.

Because the new government is just starting, those two recent reports were “zombie” documents, written by Trump holdovers or career officials. We probably won’t see much change in May, when the Biden Administration, still building its staff, sends to Congress its request for 2022 foreign assistance.

By the second half of 2021, though, things need to start happening. Here is what I’d like to see.

By then, most political nominees to key positions should be in place. Many, if not most, should be reform-minded, not just caretakers.

I would really like to see a fundamental review of drug supply policy happen in late 2021 and early 2022, just as the Biden Administration puts together its foreign assistance request to Congress for 2023. By then, Colombia should be seeing the virus subside and preparing for the campaign for Duque’s successor.

2022 could be a very interesting year. Colombia will have a new government—perhaps one that doesn’t subscribe to the “fumigation will solve violence” view. The Biden government will be consolidated. The Democratic-majority Congress, with old-fashioned hardliners marginalized—will consider what might be a very different 2023 assistance request. There should be opportunities to dialogue with cautious moderates, and to dialogue with Colombian civil society. That’s a prominent request coming from several colleagues and I who accompany AMUNAFRO, la Asociación Nacional de Alcaldes de Municipios con Población Afrodescendientes: “un dialogo serio y profundo, que tenga a las comunidades afectadas como protagonista central,” porque “NO consideramos acertado insistir en lo mismo.”

I could be wrong—but I am optimistic. I’ve got my eye on that period between mid-2021 and late 2022. So I say to my friends in Colombia, don’t despair of the Biden government yet.

Weekly Border Update: March 12, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal.

Border Patrol facilities filling with unaccompanied children

Numbers of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border rose in February to their highest level since May of 2019. Border Patrol apprehended 9,297 kids without adult accompaniment, up from 5,694 in January, while another 160 presented themselves at border ports of entry.

Media outlets with which CBP has shared preliminary March data, like CBS News, report that 3,500 more children were taken into U.S. custody during the first nine days of this month. Over the previous 21 days, CNN reported on March 10, U.S. border authorities had encountered an average of 435 unaccompanied kids per day, up from a 21-day average of 340 per day a week earlier.

Of the 9,297 unaccompanied kids apprehended in February, 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from all other countries.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The rate of increase of unaccompanied child arrivals is “unprecedented,” according to “veteran” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials cited in the Washington Post, who add that the influx has “the potential to be the largest in decades,” surpassing prior “waves” of unaccompanied children in 2014, 2016, and 2019. Indeed, of the 114 months for which WOLA has official data going back to October 2011, February 2021 was the fourth-heaviest month for apprehensions of unaccompanied children—and numbers tend to increase during the spring.

The increase isn’t made up entirely of children who fled Central America recently. The Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum, which included rapidly expelling unaccompanied children under a pandemic border-closure policy between March and November 2020, bottled up many who otherwise would have migrated last year. “These are kids who’ve been waiting at the border, in some cases for more than a year,” Jennifer Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense told the New Yorker. The Biden administration is still expelling most migrants—including asylum seekers—under the pandemic order, but it has refused to expel unaccompanied children.

A 2008 law requires that CBP and its Border Patrol agency must turn all unaccompanied minor migrants from non-contiguous countries (that means, other than Mexico) over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), which maintains a network of shelters around the country. ORR then endeavors to get the kids out of the shelters as quickly as possible, turning them over to relatives living in the United States (in 90 percent of cases) or other sponsors. Most non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied, then, seek to be apprehended after crossing the border.

Eventually, in a process slowed by backlogs, the children go to immigration court to seek asylum or other protection. Citing DHS statistics, the Washington Post reports that 52 percent of the 290,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border since 2014 still have cases pending. 28 percent have been granted humanitarian protection, 16 percent have been ordered to leave but it’s unclear whether they did, and 4.3 percent have been deported.

The ORR shelter system is near capacity right now, which means that Border Patrol—which must release the children to ORR within 72 hours—often has nowhere to put them. By March 8, the number of children in Border Patrol stations and detention facilities had risen to 3,250. Nearly 1,400 had been waiting in these facilities—austere holding cells designed for adult males—for more than the legal guideline of 72 hours. Of the 3,250, 169 were under the age of 13. Children are now spending an average of 107 hours in the grim Border Patrol holding cells, with 24-hour always-on lighting, that Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote in the Washington Post are “essentially police precincts with cement floors.”

Each day, according to the Post, an additional 500 or more children are arriving in CBP and Border Patrol custody, with nearly 700 on March 10. As of March 9, the refugee agency had just over 500 shelter beds available to accommodate them. ORR’s shelters usually hold about 13,200 children, but that number was reduced to about 8,000 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. This week, the shelter population grew to about 8,500 as ORR relaxed some of these measures.

ORR statistics cited in the Post show that 70 percent of the unaccompanied child population is male, and 75 percent are 15 to 17 years old. “HHS officials have told the White House that they need about 20,000 shelter beds to keep pace with the influx,” the same article reveals.

As it begins its eighth week, the Biden administration has been scrambling to keep up with accommodations for the children. This is complicated by the pandemic, but also by its inability to prepare before January 20. “Trump’s political appointees at HHS and DHS refused to meet with” Biden transition officials, the New Yorker reported, “deliberately sabotaging their ability to plan ahead, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.” Agencies are taking the following measures to speed up the throughput in ORR’s system, reducing the amount of time a child spends in its shelters from the current average of 30 to 40 days.

  • Working “aggressively” to release children to the custody of sponsors, including proposals to help pay some of the children’s travel costs.
  • Loosening or lifting COVID-19 precautions that had reduced shelters’ capacity.
  • Asking DHS personnel to volunteer to travel to the border and help with processing.
  • Looking for additional ORR “influx facilities” to hold children ages 13-17, where conditions are more austere than in the agency’s normal shelters but superior to CBP custody. One has opened in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and may hold up to 952 children. Other candidates include Moffett Federal Airfield, a NASA site in Google’s headquarters town of Mountain View, California; a facility in Homestead, Florida that drew controversy during the Trump administration due to poor conditions; and Fort Lee, a U.S. Army facility south of Richmond, Virginia.

On March 6, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a 13-person delegation of top officials from several agencies to the border. They visited the Carrizo Springs facility and a temporary CBP processing center in Donna, Texas, and presented recommendations to President Joe Biden after their return to Washington.

February migration numbers rise overall, even as pandemic “expulsions“ policy remains in place

Unaccompanied children are one of a small number of categories of migrants who stand any chance right now of being released into the United States to seek asylum or protection. Most migrants apprehended at the border get expelled, often within an hour or two, under a pandemic measure referred to as “Title 42” that the Trump administration instituted in March 2020 and the Biden administration has maintained.

In addition to unaccompanied children, the other exceptions to rapid expulsion appear to be:

  • A growing proportion of family unit members (parents with children) apprehended at the border: CBS News reports that nearly 60 percent of family members apprehended in February “were processed under U.S. immigration law, with many allowed to seek asylum or other forms of protection while in American communities.” The rest were expelled.
  • A tightly controlled stream of migrants who had been subject to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) policy. As of March 10, the White House reported that 1,400 MPP enrollees had been admitted into the United States to await their immigration court hearings. About 15,000 of a qualified population of over 25,000 had signed up for admission into the United States. The winding down of “Remain in Mexico” brought a happy bit of news: the closure of a squalid encampment of MPP enrollees in Matamoros, Mexico near the Brownsville, Texas border crossing. Though not all of the camp’s residents have been admitted yet, the number of those still waiting is small enough for shelters to accommodate them in Matamoros.

Migrants not in these categories, including many Haitian and Central American families, are still being expelled under Title 42. Still, U.S. authorities saw an increase in their encounters with all categories of migrants in February. Border Patrol encountered 96,974 migrants last month, up from 75,312 in January. CBP took another 3,467 into custody at ports of entry.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The 96,974 encounters were the most since May 2019, and the third-most in the 114 months since October 2011. 43 percent were from Mexico, 20 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 6 percent from El Salvador, and 12 percent from other countries.

  • 68,732 of those encountered were single adults. This was the most single adults for any month since October 2011 (we don’t have data breaking out adults before then). 57 percent were from Mexico, 17 percent from Guatemala, 12 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 10 percent from other countries.
  • Nearly all single adults were expelled, and many reflected in this number are double- or triple-counted. CBP toldCBS News that about 25,000 of migrants encountered in February had been caught before. The “recidivism rate”—the percentage of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before, expelled, and tried to cross again—was 38 percent in January, up from 7 percent in 2019.
  • 18,945 were members of family units. This was the most family unit members since August 2019 and the 12th largest monthly total since October 2011. As noted above, over 40 percent of these people were probably expelled. 47 percent were from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 9 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 21 percent from other countries.
  • As also noted above, 9,297 were unaccompanied children, the most since May 2019 and the 4th-most since October 2011. 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from other countries.

The rate of increase alarmed unnamed officials, cited in the Washington Post, who “described the surge as ‘overwhelming,’ ‘on fire’ and potentially larger than the 2019 crisis, when CBP took nearly 1 million migrants into custody.” So far in March, U.S. agents are detaining more than 4,200 people per day, which if sustained would rival the 132,856 apprehensions recorded in May 2019, which was the most in 13 years.

Mexico, too, is seeing an increase in migration: the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, has served 6,000 migrants so far this year, more than in all of 2020. The refugee agency COMAR received 13,513 requests to enter Mexico’s asylum system in January and February; if that rate is sustained, it will break COMAR’s request record set in 2019.

Overall, U.S. authorities expelled 72 percent of the migrants they encountered in February, under the Title 42 pandemic measure. That was down from 83 percent in January and 85 percent in December.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

55 percent of family unit members are being apprehended in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector. In order to balance out the caseload, CBP has begun flying some of those families elsewhere for processing. The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters reported that two planes per day, each carrying up to 135 migrants, have begun arriving in El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley. There, families would be processed, begin their asylum paperwork, and be turned over to Annunciation House, a respite center that gives them a place to stay for a few days while they make travel arrangements to the communities where they will live and go to immigration court.

At a March 10 White House briefing, Roberta Jacobson—a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is now the National Security Council’s southern border coordinator—repeatedly urged migrants not to come to the border right now, noting that Title 42 remains in force. She also acknowledged that migrant smugglers are likely capitalizing on the perception that the Biden administration will be more welcoming than its predecessor. While they say they intend to lift the pandemic measures and other Trump-era obstacles to asylum, Jacobson and other officials are asking for time to set up infrastructure for processing, alternatives to detention, and other needs. “We are… almost 50 days in,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are digging ourselves out of a broken and dismantled system.”

Republican leaders have ramped up their messaging about the increased migration numbers as evidence of a “Biden border crisis.” House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-California) plans to lead a delegation of Republicans to the border soon. “The border is breaking down as I speak,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News. “Immigration in 2022 [midterm legislative elections] will be a bigger issue than it was in 2016.” Trump’s former acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, co-authored a Fox News column alleging that the Democratic Party’s plan is to allow larger numbers of undocumented aliens to enter, give them citizenship and turn them into loyal voters.

Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has probably received the most attention by alleging that admissions of asylum seekers are spreading COVID-19. In fact, as the Associated Press reported, there is no evidence to back up that claim. As he sends up to 1,000 state police and Texas military forces to the border, Gov. Abbott is refusing the Biden administration’s offer of Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) money for Texas communities to provide COVID-19 testing for asylum-seeking migrants and to cover other costs associated with their arrival.

  • As foreseen in an early February White House executive order, the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated the Central American Minors program. This Obama-era effort allowed nearly 5,000 children to apply within their own countries to migrate to join parents with legal status in the United States. The Trump administration abruptly canceled the program in 2017, stranding about 3,000 kids who had been approved for travel.
  • The Biden administration announced on March 8 that it will offer Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelan migrants living in the United States.
  • At her March 10 White House briefing, Amb. Roberta Jacobson addressed plans for a four-year, $4 billion aid package to Central America to address the “root causes” of migration. She noted that unlike prior aid packages, there would be an effort to steer aid away from corrupt government leaders and toward civil society, the private sector, and other reformers. That dovetails with the recommendation of former Obama White House official Dan Restrepo, who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “where corrupt governing elites are resistant to change, Washington should partner with civil society.”
  • The ACLU sent a letter to DHS Secretary Mayorkas detailing 13 administrative complaints about abuse committed by border agents, which the organization had filed with the DHS Inspector General between 2019 and 2020. None of the cases have moved.
  • Reuters reports on smugglers’ increasing use of color-coded wristbands to indicate that migrants traveling through Mexico and crossing the border have “paid for the right to transit through cartel territory.”
  • The Cato Institute obtained official data pointing to a 41 percent or greater increase in successful “illegal entries” of migrants—what Border Patrol calls “got-aways”—during the Trump administration. Border agents meanwhile told the Washington Post that they counted 1,000 got-aways in a single day in February.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas is testifying in the House Committee on Homeland Security on March 17.
  • In its four years, the Trump administration “filled two-thirds of the immigration courts’ 520 lifetime positions with judges who, as a whole, have disproportionately ordered deportation,” Reuters reveals.

Colombia Peace Update: March 13, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

At least one child killed in March 2 bombing raid on FARC dissidents

An entry in the “Links” section of last week’s update noted that Colombia’s armed forces had reported “neutralizing” 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare, on March 2. (Guaviare, in south-central Colombia, is an agricultural frontier department with a history of armed group presence.) “Duarte,” once a mid-level FARC leader, had exited the peace process before the peace accord’s 2016 signing, and now leads the largest network of armed “dissidents.” Since at least January 2019, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has warned that Duarte’s group recruits many underage combatants.

On March 9 some left-leaning media, citing families and local human rights associations, began alleging that as many as 12 of those killed in the March 2 attack could have been children. As of March 12, one child was confirmed to have been killed at the dissidents’ site. A trusted source tells WOLA that two other children arrived wounded at the hospital in nearby San José del Guaviare municipality.

Danna Lizeth Montilla was 16 years old. Her father told El Tiempo that he had not seen his daughter since December 2020, when she left home in Puerto Cachicamo, a village in San José del Guaviare, to live with relatives at a site where a better internet signal might allow her to attend school during the pandemic. They lost contact with Danna in January. Her father feared that she had been recruited by an armed group. “It’s something that has become common,” he told El Tiempo. “But I never thought it would happen to my daughter.”

This is not the first time that child combatants have died in a bombing raid on dissidents. An August 2019 operation in the nearby municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, killed eight minors at an encampment—but the Defense Ministry failed to report that detail. When opposition senators revealed the deaths in November 2019, accusing a cover-up, the defense minister at the time, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign.

The current defense minister is not covering up the March 2 bombing outcome. Diego Molano acknowledged that children may have died, including Danna Lizeth Montilla, though the actual number is unknown since forensic investigations continue. He placed blame for what happened on the dissident groups recruiting children, and insistedthat the armed forces, lacking intelligence indicating that children were present, carried out the March 2 operation in accordance with international humanitarian law.

While further investigation is needed to confirm that, legal experts interviewed in Colombian media agree that it’s possible the armed forces’ March 2 operation did not violate international humanitarian law. While IHL prohibits recruitment of children under 18, armed child recruits 15 or over may be considered combatants, or legitimate military targets, under some circumstances.

Minister Molano didn’t stop there, though. In interviews on March 9 and 10 he caused an uproar in Colombia, using language attacking the children themselves. Some examples:

  • “Even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.”
  • “We’re not talking about young people who didn’t know what they were doing.”
  • “It’s not like they were studying for their college entrance exams.”
  • “This operation targeted a narco-terrorist structure that uses young people to turn them into war machines.”

Criticisms of Molano’s statements poured out. “There’s no such thing as minors acting out of free will in an armed conflict,” said Javeriana University law professor Yadira Alarcón. “The war machine is the one that kills kids, minister,” opposition Senator Iván Cepeda wrote on Twitter. “This is a message of war against children, a message of war against the vulnerable populations that today are being victimized,” said prominent human rights defender Francia Márquez, one of 23 signers of a letter condemning Molano’s statements. “For the Minister of Defense, children aged 13, 14, and 16 have been turned into ‘war machines.’ It is very sad that kids are called that,” said Danna Lizeth Montilla’s father.

Indigenous community retains soldiers in Chocó

The commander of the Colombian Army’s 7th Division denounced on March 8 that members of an indigenous community disarmed, bound the hands of, and retained nine soldiers in Carmen de Atrato municipality, in Chocó department. (In Colombia’s northwest corner, Chocó is the country’s poorest department, and one of its most violent.) Government officials are vowing to pursue kidnapping charges against members of the local Indigenous Guard, a disciplined public order force—armed only with ceremonial staffs—that is common in many indigenous territories.

Details about the incident are confusing. Soldiers claim they were investigating shots fired near a main road. Indigenous Guard members in the El Consuelo Parte Baja community claim that the soldiers lacked recognizable insignia. Neither side alleges that force was used. On the next day (March 9), the community turned the nine soldiers over to a committee from the Defensoría.

The Army vowed to file criminal kidnapping charges against the Chocó indigenous leaders. President Iván Duque’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, voiced rage, telling El Tiempo: “Things must be called by their names. They were not detained, they were kidnapped! And those who did it should be condemned for that crime. They should be sentenced for that crime to prison terms between 40 and 45 years, the maximum that the penal code establishes for that case.”

Guarín, a longtime conservative security intellectual and columnist, sees a larger nationwide plot. “It is an unarmed violent mobilization—at least not with firearms, in most cases—that seeks to prevent the capture of criminals, the eradication of illicit crops, the destruction of drug processing laboratories, operations against the illicit extraction of minerals, and even the fight against organized armed groups’ structures.”

Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) rejected Guarín’s words, including allegations that the Chocó community engaged in kidnapping. ONIC’s peace and human rights counselor, Gustavo Vélez, told El Tiempo, “These people [soldiers] were not assaulted, they were not outraged, they were only held… They were taken to a place where they did not even go without water, and they were handed over to… the Defensoría.”

“As a national organization we categorically reject this type of assessment by Dr. Guarín,” Vélez continued, “because this type of assessment stigmatizes the Indigenous Guard, stigmatizes men and women who today are displaced and confined. At no time has the Indigenous Guard been used by armed actors for illegal purposes.”

Letter from UN rapporteurs on fumigation

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made public a December 17 letter from seven of its rapporteurs, urging the Colombian government not to restart a program that would eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

Between 1994 and 2015, with heavy U.S. support, contract pilots and Colombian police sprayed glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares of the country’s territory, achieving modest and quickly reversible reductions in coca cultivation. The program was suspended in 2015 after a World Health Organization study found glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While the Duque government is vowing to re-start fumigation, Colombia’s Constitutional Court has setseveral health, safety, consultation, and other requirements that the government must meet before doing so.

The December letter is signed by the UN rapporteurs for Toxic Substances, Afro-Descendant Communities, Environment, Food, Physical and Mental Health, Human Rights Defenders, and Indigenous Communities. It contends that resuming glyphosate fumigation would “carry enormous risks for human rights and the environment, while it will not comply with the conditions established by the Constitutional Court or international obligations.” It warns that renewed fumigation might violate the terms of the 2016 peace accord. It advises renouncing fumigation, and asks the government for information about compliance with the Constitutional Court’s requirements and other risk mitigation measures.

“The letter was sent after we in civil society requested that the rapporteurs activate this mechanism, and thus help restrain the Government’s insistent announcements about the possible resumption of the PECIG [glyphosate spray program],” notes a statement from the Colombian legal NGO DeJusticia and several other groups, including WOLA.

The Colombian government’s February 17 response to the UN rapporteurs also became public last week—and it was a flat refusal. Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations Adriana Mejía told the rapporteurs that their “urgent call…does not comply with the requirements set forth in the code of conduct governing the performance of your mandate.” In other words, that the rapporteurs were outside their proper lane, and thus would not get a response to their letter’s claims.

The UN letter was not the only public declaration last week in opposition to renewing fumigation. More than 150 academics from Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere signed a letter urging President Joe Biden “to reconsider your support for aerial spraying.” WOLA’s Adam Isacson published a column in El Espectador voicing hope that, once it becomes more consolidated with the addition of key officials, the Biden administration may be convinced to abandon the spray program.

For now, the fumigation program remains suspended. Defense Minister Molano, though, reiterated on March 2 that, with the Court’s conditions met, the program would restart in April. A judge in Nariño department, in southwest Colombia, continues to hold up a component of the restart with a finding that Afro-Descendant and indigenous communities must be consulted first. A government filing alleges that the judge’s “omissive” action runs counter to “maintaining national security.”

  • President Duque held a rare meeting on March 10 with Comunes (ex-FARC) party leader Rodrigo Londoño to discuss protection of demobilized ex-combatants. On March 18, Londoño is to appear before the Truth Commission jointly with former top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is currently in an ICE facility in Georgia contesting his deportation, after serving a U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking. Meanwhile, in an eight-page document Londoño frankly discussed the Comunes party’s difficulty joining coalitions for the 2022 presidential and legislative elections, as well as divisions within the party.
  • U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a March 10 phone conversation with Defense Minister Molano and Presidential Chief of Staff Maria Paula Correa. According to the White House readout, topics covered included climate change, “a peaceful and negotiated outcome to” Venezuela’s crisis, peace accord implementation, and “the importance of upholding human rights.”
  • Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, sparked controversy with another in a series of public comments blaming Venezuelan migrants for some crime in the city. As the first woman and first LGBTI mayor of Bogotá, her words drew expressions of consternation from several of her center-left political allies.
  • A regular Universidad de los Andes poll of Colombian public opinion found that support for the FARC peace accord surpassed 50 percent for the first time—51 percent, up from 41 percent during a 2016 version of the poll.
  • The investigative website La Liga del Silencio reported that the Truth Commission had sent the Defense Ministry a letter last October noting that the armed forces had not responded satisfactorily to 38 different information requests submitted over the previous year. The Liga report reveals that a 2015 fire at a military facility destroyed 17 years of Army records in a major conflict region, the Magdalena Medio.
  • The Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), which since 2019 has been directed by a conservative disliked by much of the country’s human rights community, is again embroiled in controversy. It faces allegations that its leadership “drastically” censored the content of a museum exhibit that Center staff had developed with several indigenous groups’ participation and consent. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), citing indications of prior censorship from fifty witnesses, asked the CNMH to turn over e-mail communications between Director Darío Acevedo and the leadership of the historical memory museum effort.
  • Writing for Mongabay, Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses finds that Colombia’s military-led environmental protection campaign has done little to confront those most responsible for profiting from and financing Amazon basin deforestation, nor does it resolve land tenure issues that underlie the problem.

  • The situation at the border right now—a jump in arrivals of unaccompanied children, the slow end of Remain in Mexico, the persistence of the Trump pandemic “expulsions” policy—is really confusing. At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer unpacks this moment and the difficult choices with which it presents the new Biden administration.
  • The ACLU sent a letter with a big appendix to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas detailing 13 administrative complaints about “abuse, neglect, and trauma inflicted by CBP on people simply seeking protection in the United States.” The organization had filed these complaints with the DHS Inspector General between 2019 and 2020, but none of the cases has moved.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last week made public a December 17 letter from seven of its rapporteurs, urging the Colombian government not to restart an aerial herbicide fumigation program in the country’s coca-growing areas.
  • I haven’t finished reading this yet—it’s long but impressive. Noria Research published a series about Mexico’s opium poppy economy, based on fieldwork in cultivation zones. It questions dominant narratives and policies: “In Mexico, opium functions as a ‘political opiate’: one that allows marginalized regions to economically survive, while the State limits its social, educational, and development functions to a minimum.”
  • A drug trafficker’s trial in New York is causing problems for Honduras’s corrupt president, Juan Orlando Hernández. At Contra Corriente, Leonardo Aguilar details some of the revelations implicating top politicians like Hernández and his rival Manuel Zelaya, as well as leadership of the security forces.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

  • 9:00-10:30 at wola.org: Breaking the Stalemate: How Venezuelan Civil Society is Pushing for Free and Fair Elections (RSVP required).
  • 9:00-12:10 at thedialogue.org: Media and Democracy in the Americas IV – Overcoming Distrust in Media(RSVP required).
  • 9:30 at armed-services.senate.gov: Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on United States Southern Command and United States Northern Command.
  • 10:30-11:30 at CLIP: Corriendo la cortina de las relaciones China – Venezuela (RSVP required).
  • 1:00 at Noria Research Zoom: Opium & the War on Drugs: Mexico into International Perspective (RSVP required).
  • 5:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: COVID-19 recovery: A partnership strategy for the Biden administration in Latin America and the Caribbean (RSVP required).
  • 7:00 at centroprodh.org.mx: Militarización y derechos de las mujeres (RSVP required).

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Friday, March 19, 2021

  • 11:00-12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Fortifying the Future: Assessing the Homeland Security Mission in the Decade Ahead (RSVP required).

Some tweets that made me laugh last week

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Jamie Larson