I hope you had a good holiday, if you celebrate. Or at least a good spring weekend if you're in this hemisphere. Here's how Washington looked last Monday. Not bad:
WOLA Podcast: “People coming from the Western Hemisphere have been perceived as inherently not refugees”
Yael Shacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, is a historian of U.S. asylum policy. She offers an invaluable perspective on the current increase in asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and how the system should work. That’s hugely important right now as the US-Mexico border is seeing another big increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving, mostly from Central America.
As the number of asylum-seeking children and families at the U.S.-Mexico border rises for the fourth time since 2014—and as the U.S. government once again responds chaotically—we need to step back and look at the U.S. migration and asylum system. It is clearly inadequate for receiving this population.
We do that in this episode with an expert colleague, Yael Schacher of Refugees International, a historian of U.S. asylum law and policy. Shacher makes many points in this conversation that don’t get enough attention in the current discussion of the border and protection-seeking migration. She notes that U.S. asylum laws were not written with people fleeing the Western Hemisphere in mind. An asylum system adapting to today’s realities, she adds, would abandon “expedited removal” and give a greater role to asylum officers in adjudicating cases—fairly, but more quickly than backlogged immigration courts. And the whole conception of how asylum seekers are received should change.
In this episode Yael Shacher shares many other observations and recommendations, steeped in an understanding of the history of how we got here. Most would not require a change in existing law as much as changes in attitudes and resource allocations. These inputs come at an important time as the Biden administration gradually dismantles the Trump administration’s policies and reviews broader changes to asylum, even while child and family arrivals increase.
25 Organizations Call for an End to U.S. Support for Aerial Herbicide Fumigation in Colombia
Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.
March 26, 2021
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Dear President Biden,
We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated. It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.
Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.
Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.
Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.
Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.
They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste.
These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:
- Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
- Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
- After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
- Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
- Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
- Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
- Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicatorsthemselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.
In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.
This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.
Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do.
Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.
This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.
It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.
- Amazon Watch
- Center for International Environmental Law
- Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
- Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
- Colombia Human Rights Committee
- Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
- Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
- Drug Policy Alliance
- Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
- Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
- Healing Bridges
- ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
- Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
- Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
- Latin America Working Group
- Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
- Missionary Oblates
- Oxfam America
- Oxfam Colombia
- Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
- Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
- Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
- United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
- Washington Office on Latin America
- Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
Weekly Border Update: April 2, 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. See past weekly updates here.
Migrant apprehensions may reach largest annual total since early 2000s, as most are expelled
The Washington Post published preliminary data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border during March. It shows migrants came into the agency’s custody, at least briefly, on 171,000 occasions last month. That would be the largest monthly total since March of 2001, and a remarkable 76 percent more than February 2021. Here is how it would compare among the previous 115 months:
Of this “preliminary” figure of 171,000:
- 99,200 appear to be single adults, a 44 percent increase over February and the largest number of single adults encountered in the monthly data WOLA has collected, which go back to October 2011.
- 18,800 were unaccompanied children, a 102 percent increase over February, smashing the May 2019 record of 11,861.
- 53,000 were members of family units, a 180 percent increase over February and the fourth or fifth largest monthly total since October 2011.
Under the Trump-era “Title 42” pandemic restrictions that the Biden administration has kept in place, about 90 percent of adults and 10-20 percent of family members are being expelled, usually in a matter of hours. So the population of migrants taken into U.S. custody at the border looks more modest, perhaps similar to 2019:
CNN reported seeing Border Patrol estimates predicting that the agency might apprehend or “encounter” 2 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2020 and September 2021. That number—up to 1.1 million single adults, 828,000 family members, and 200,000 unaccompanied children—would shatter Border Patrol’s annual record of 1,643,679 migrant apprehensions set in 2000.
That estimate seems dubious. Even with 171,000 migrants apprehended in March, getting to 2 million would require Border Patrol to encounter a record-shattering 241,000 migrants for each of the next six months—about 20,000 more than the largest monthly total ever measured. Deputy Chief Raúl Ortiz said on March 30 that Border Patrol expects to encounter “more than a million” migrants in fiscal 2021. That appears more likely, and would be the largest annual total since 2006, exceeding the 851,508 apprehensions reported in 2019.
Unlike past years, a large portion of these migrants—one half to two-thirds, perhaps—would be instantly expelled under Title 42. And much of the total would be “double-counting” as expelled migrants try to cross again. In February, about 25 percent of people encountered at the border had crossed more than once, CNN reports, up from 7 percent in 2019.
While not on pace for a record-breaking year, Mexico reported apprehending 34,993 migrants in its territory between January 1 and March 25, 7,643 or 28 percent more than the same period in 2020. About 55 percent were from Honduras, 29 percent from Guatemala, and 7 percent from El Salvador. Of all migrants, said National Migration Institute (INM) director Francisco Garduño, 4,400 were minors, about 1,200 of them unaccompanied. Mexico’s totals so far this year “roughly mirror the numbers from early 2019, before Trump forced Mexico” to increase apprehensions by threatening to levy tariffs, the Associated Press observed.
Unaccompanied children: flattening out or even declining?
Much media coverage of the border continues to focus on U.S. agencies’ struggle to accommodate the record numbers of children arriving unaccompanied, whom the Biden administration refuses to expel under Title 42. As of March 31, 18,170 children were in U.S. government custody: 13,204 in permanent and emergency shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS), and 4,966 awaiting ORR shelter space while stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate detention facilities.
The most recent numbers we’ve managed to obtain do show a glimmer of good news, though, about unaccompanied children. The population in CBP’s custody has dropped under 5,000, from 5,495 on March 25, as new temporary ORR shelter spaces have opened up. And the number of non-Mexican unaccompanied kids Border Patrol is newly apprehending may be dropping. The agency took in more than 600 per day on each of the three days for which we saw data during the week of March 22, but between March 28 and March 31 it took in less than 500 on three of four days, and never reached 600. Though it’s early to be certain about trends, this points to a downward trendline:
The Washington Post, as noted, just reported a preliminary figure of 18,800 unaccompanied children taken into CBP custody in all of March—including Mexican children, who under current law are almost all returned to Mexico. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government expects to encounter between 18,600 and 22,000 children in April, and between 21,800 and 25,000 in May.
If the lower total since March 28 is sustained, though, unaccompanied child apprehensions will be on the low end, or even below, these estimates. One reason the number of kids arriving alone might decline is the increased probability, discussed below, that a family unit won’t be expelled under Title 42. If there is some likelihood of being released into the interior to pursue asylum, parents will be more inclined to accompany their children, resulting in fewer kids traveling alone.
In fact, Reuters revealed, a surprising number of “unaccompanied” children may have arrived with a family member—but because the adult relative was not a parent or guardian, Border Patrol separated the family. A data project managed by “a handful of nonprofit groups” estimates that as many as 10 to 17 percent of “unaccompanied” children actually arrived with an aunt or uncle, an adult sibling, cousin, grandparent, or other relative. Because they are not immediate family, CBP policy usually considers the child unaccompanied and expels the adult under Title 42. This very high estimate—between one in six and one in ten children separated from a relative at the border—has “not been made public before” and CBP “told Reuters they do not track such separations.”
In the meantime, the large population of unaccompanied kids continues to strain ORR and CBP capacities. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that CBP is “working around the clock” to move kids out of Border Patrol facilities and into ORR custody as space opens up. This space, as Mark Greenberg notes in a new Migration Policy Institute study, started out very scarce: “The Biden administration took office with less than half of the shelter capacity that ORR had estimated was needed for preparedness.”
Children are not meant to spend a long time in ORR’s shelter network: ideally, no more than about a month. The agency works to identify relatives or other sponsors who can take them while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. ORR has been moving between 200 and 300 children per day out of its system and into relatives’ custody, far fewer than the number of children being newly apprehended and transferred. This points to continued increases in the need for shelter space.
Internal government estimates reported by CNN and the New York Times indicate that ORR could need 34,100 or 35,500 shelter beds to keep up with the high projected number of arriving unaccompanied children. As last week’s update found, a series of emergency shelters—from convention centers to military bases—is increasing ORR’s capacity up to about 28,800 beds. And the New York Times reports that new facilities being “scouted” include “a Crowne Plaza hotel in Dallas, a convention center in Orange County, Fla., and a church hall in Houston.”
This new shelter capacity should alleviate the crowding in CBP facilities’ holding areas, where the law requires children to spend less than 72 hours. Transfers out of CBP custody have increased from about 400 per day the week of March 22 to about 800 per day the week of March 29.
On March 30 CBP allowed selected pool reporters to visit the largest of its holding areas, the temporary processing center in Donna, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. This site is a complex of tents built in January while a more permanent facility in McAllen, outfitted in 2014, undergoes renovation. The press visitors to Donna found 3,400 unaccompanied children and 700 family members crammed into a space intended for 250. Most children are in eight “pods” separated by plastic dividers, while the youngest are in a “play pen” area where they sleep on mats on the floor. More than 2,000 kids had been in the facility for more than the maximum 72 hours, 39 of them for more than 15 days. Oscar Escamilla, the acting executive officer of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, told reporters that “250 to 300 kids enter daily and far fewer leave”—a situation that should begin to reverse as temporary ORR shelters come online.
“I’m a Border Patrol agent. I didn’t sign up for this,” the New York Times quoted Mr. Escamilla saying “as he looked at some of the younger children, many of them under 12.” However, as veteran immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson observed in The Atlantic, even after seven years of child arrivals, CBP has resisted building more family-appropriate holding facilities out of the unproven belief that, as a commissioner told her, “such a project could send a message that would encourage even more people to migrate to the United States.”
The border saw some tragic and outrageous episodes involving children this week. Border Patrol found a mother, her 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son unconscious on an island in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The mother and son were resuscitated, but the girl died. In remote New Mexico desert, Border Patrol night-vision video meanwhile captured smugglers dropping two Ecuadorian girls, age 3 and 5, from atop a 14 foot tall section of border fence. CBP found the girls and “they are said to be in good health,” Al Jazeera reported.
The category of migrant that appears to have increased fastest in March was family members. Border Patrol reported a 180 percent increase in encounters with families—parents or legal guardians with children—from 18,945 in February to 53,000 last month. The Washington Post noted that DHS officials “are privately warning about what they see as the next phase of a migration surge that could be the largest in two decades, driven by a much greater number of families.”
The Post noted that groups of asylum-seeking families “sometimes collectively numbering as many as 400” have been “showing up this month along the riverbanks in South Texas.” El Faro published a series of photos showing what these nighttime arrivals look like, as Border Patrol has set up card tables on a dirt road in Roma, Texas, at which they check in new arrivals.
What won’t be clear until we see CBP’s detailed March data is how many of these families were allowed into the U.S. interior to begin removal and asylum proceedings, and how many were expelled under Title 42. Under the pandemic expulsions policy, Mexico agreed in March 2020 to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apprehended at the border. It is still taking back nearly all single adults, who are the majority of all apprehended migrants. But even as it takes a larger number of expelled families than it did in 2020, Mexico appears to have hit a ceiling and is now refusing about 80 to 90 percent of family expulsions, especially of those with small children, according to the Washington Post. (That article’s co-author, Nick Miroff, notifies us that the percentage more recently appears to have fallen to 75 to 80 percent—perhaps due to U.S. requests that Mexico take more expelled families.)
In order to get around this, DHS has been flying some families from segments of the border where Mexico is refusing expulsions to segments where Mexico is still accepting them. Planes continue to arrive daily to El Paso, where El Paso Matters has documented the anguish of parents with small children taken from the airport to the middle of the border bridge and left in Ciudad Juárez.
Garduño, the director of Mexico’s INM, told press that smugglers are advising would-be migrants to bring children. They “suggest that migrant parents travel with their children ‘to facilitate entry into Mexico and the United States.’”
Families often get to remain in the U.S. interior for a long time as badly backlogged U.S. immigration courts consider their requests for asylum or other protection. “On average, it takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim,” Jonathan Blitzer reported in The New Yorker. The Biden administration, NPR, reported, is considering a plan—devised with heavy input from the Migration Policy Institute—that would seek to speed the process by empowering asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to decide more cases of people apprehended at the border. They already do this with asylum seekers who apply elsewhere in the United States. (We discuss this in an April 1 WOLA Podcast with asylum expert Yael Shacher of Refugees International.)
Mexican Army kills Guatemalan citizen amid southern border crackdown
Mexico has responded to the Biden administration’s appeals to reduce migration flows by deploying more military, security, and migration personnel to its border with Guatemala. On March 27 a large number of soldiers, marines, national guardsmen, local police, and INM agents—3,000 people by one estimate—paraded through Tapachula, the largest city near Mexico’s southern border, then arrayed themselves along frequently used border crossings. On the Guatemalan side, in the border town of Tecún Umán, security forces increased their presence as well; officials from both sides held a protocolary photo-op in the middle of the border bridge over the Suchiate River.
Mexico’s Army is part of the deployment, making migration control one of many internal non-defense roles that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has encouraged the military to take on more fully. One army unit carrying out these duties, the 15th Motorized Cavalry Regiment, was involved in a tragic incident along the border on March 29.
Soldiers shot and killed a 31-year-old Guatemalan citizen, Elvin Mazariegos, a passenger in a truck near a usually unmonitored land border crossing in Mazapa de Madero, near Motozintla, Chiapas in the mountains north of Tapachula. When the truck, en route back into Guatemala, shifted into reverse upon seeing a group of Mexican Army soldiers, one fired at the vehicle in an incident that Mexico’s Defense Secretary called “an erroneous reaction.”
Like about 10 percent of residents of a zone where Mexico and Guatemala blur together and many road crossings lack customs or INM presence, Mazariegos, a resident of the Guatemalan town across the border, worked transporting products to and from retail stores on both sides. On March 29 he had gone with co-workers “to drop off money at bodegas where he worked.” Like most, he did not have an official border crossing card.
In areas like Mazapa de Madero, Mexico’s Animal Político notes, encounters with government forces often mean dealing with corruption. “An ‘assist’ to the authority in exchange for not having a rigorous inspection. According to his sister, the victim had already suffered on occasion from having to pay these bribes.”
That may explain why the vehicle in which Mazariegos was traveling appeared to seek to flee the scene. One of the combat-trained soldiers responded by firing several shots at the vehicle, despite the lack of any provocation or danger—a textbook example of why civil-military experts frequently warn about misusing armed forces for internal duties like migration control.
Hundreds of angry townspeople took the soldiers into custody—which sometimes occurs in Indigenous communities—and brought them to the Guatemalan side, where they stayed until the community received some assurances that the responsible soldier would be brought to justice and the family would receive some recompense.
Mexico’s Defense and Foreign Relations secretaries said the responsible soldier is “at the disposal” of the civilian criminal justice system. The Army told Mazariegos’s wife that it would pay the Guatemalan’s funeral expenses and reportedly offered a payout of 1 million Mexican pesos (US$50,000), which his family says is not enough to support the deceased man’s three young children.
Though not part of its ongoing southern border migration crackdown, Mexico was shaken this week by another official killing of a Central American migrant. Four police officers killed Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a Salvadoran mother of two daughters, who worked as a hotel chambermaid in the beach resort of Tulum. In a scene reminiscent of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a female police officer knelt on Salazar’s neck, breaking her spinal column and killing her, while onlookers recorded the incident and entreated the police to stop.
Salazar, 36, fled Sonsonate, El Salvador in 2016, and sought asylum in Mexico’s system, citing “gender violence.” Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR granted her asylum in 2017, and she had worked and raised her daughters in Tulum since then.
On March 27, a convenience store video showed Salazar appearing agitated, as though in the throes of a panic attack. After she left the store, police came and subdued her, inexplicably using extreme brutality and killing her. The attorney general of Quintana Roo, the state that incorporates Tulum, said that the four police officers are in custody and will be charged with “femicide.” President López Obrador lamented the crime: “She was brutally treated and murdered … It is an event that fills us with pain and shame.” In a stream of tweets about the incident, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele called on Mexico to hold the police officers accountable.
Articles this week in the Mexican publications SinEmbargo and Chiapas Paralelo provided updates on the miserable conditions faced by Central American and other migrants in the INM’s detention centers. In Chiapas and elsewhere near Mexico’s southern border, these detention centers are near capacity right now as migrant flows rise and the government’s crackdown intensifies.
Using partially available INM data, SinEmbargo counts the deaths of at least 20 migrants in INM detention in 2013 and between 2015 and 2019 (2014 and 2020 data are unavailable). Causes range from cardiac arrests and infections to “falling from bunk beds.” Brenda Ochoa of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told the publication that migrants in INM detention receive “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, ranging from pressure to sign their deportation papers to physical and psychological abuse, particularly of women.”
Guatemala prepares another caravan response
Amid word on social media that Hondurans were planning to form a northbound migrant caravan on March 30, representatives of the Guatemalan, Honduran, and U.S. governments held a virtual “high-level working meeting” to coordinate their response.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a “state of prevention” for five of the country’s twenty-two departments, restricting freedom of movement, assembly, and public protest in order to ease the security forces’ efforts to block or disperse any migrants traveling in a caravan. While it is normally legal for residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to travel in each others’ territories without a passport, Giammattei based his order on COVID-19 precautions.
A statement from Amnesty International, the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI), and the El Salvador Independent Monitoring Group warned Guatemala “that imposing measures that could incite the excessive use of force against migrants and applicants for international protection is inexcusable.” The statement recalled Guatemala’s January 16 dispersal of an attempted Honduran caravan near the countries’ common border, in which “soldiers severely repressed people who tried to move forward.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration’s point person for outreach to Mexico and Central America on migration issues, spoke by phone with President Giammattei on March 30. “They discussed the significant risks to those leaving their homes and making the dangerous journey to the United States, especially during a global pandemic,” along with priorities for economic assistance, according to a White House readout of the call. Even as the Guatemalan president decreed a state of emergency, the official record notes, Harris “thanked President Giammattei for his efforts to secure Guatemala’s southern border.”
In the end, by April 1 Guatemalan forces had quickly dispersed a small caravan whose members crossed the border.
As the Biden administration develops a U.S. assistance response to Central America, Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Latin America director during Barack Obama’s first term, argued in The Hill that some forms of U.S. aid to the region—while not solving migration’s “root causes”—could show results more quickly than most might expect. These include “immediate disaster relief, cash-for-work programs, COVID-19 vaccines, alternatives to irregular migration, and a clear break with predatory elites.” On that latter point, Restrepo suggests publicly indicting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was repeatedly named as a co-conspirator in narcotrafficking, in a U.S. trial that concluded this week with the president’s brother being sentenced to life in prison.
Speaking with NPR, Juan González, who holds Restrepo’s old position in Joe Biden’s NSC, repeated the phrase “predatory elite” to describe Central America’s corrupt political class. “You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs,” González said. “Migration is essentially a social release valve for migrants.”
- WOLA’s latest audio podcast discusses the border situation and how the asylum system should work, with guest Yael Schacher of Refugees International.
- Though the Biden administration’s 60-day pause in border wall-building has expired, it remains in place pending an eventual announcement of a plan. However, eminent domain cases in Texas courts have not been closed, and the government continues seeking to seize private property along the border for wall construction.
- NBC News, USA Today, and the Guardian covered Democratic and Republican legislators’ separate “dueling” border visits, to different parts of Texas, over the March 26-28 weekend.
- Reuters’ interviews with migrants and smugglers, and reviews of closed Facebook groups, indicate how “coyotes” are feeding migrants many false messages about the Biden administration’s policies toward migrants at the border.
- Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic and Julia G. Young at Time make the point that the history of U.S. foreign policy in Central America is a key “root cause” underlying migration from the region.
- House Homeland Security Committee ranking member John Katko (R-New York) and border district Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced legislation creating a $1 billion contingency fund, from which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could draw to attend to migrants at moments when they arrive at the border in large numbers.
- “Predicting a problem is not the same thing as having the right tools at your disposal,” writes Cecilia Muñoz, who headed the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, in The Atlantic. Muñoz voices exasperation with “immigration advocates who project confidence that 100 percent of migrant families are fleeing danger and deserve asylum,” adding that “most are unable or unwilling to name any category of migrant who should ever be returned.”
- “The bottom line is that through expulsions and deportations, the United States is returning migrants and asylum seekers to situations of instability and danger amidst a pandemic, and this must be stopped,” reads an explainer document from the Latin America Working Group.
- “Immigrants are not coming to the U.S. because they are attracted by President Joe Biden’s inclusive language, and they were not repelled by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist imagery,” argues Greg Weeks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. At Mother Jones, several immigration experts voice doubts about whether Biden administration messaging makes much difference for would-be migrants’ decision making.
- “One of the reasons why Mexican migration [to the U.S.] went down so much after 2007 is that there are about 260,000 people every year who come from Mexico to work legally in the U.S. and go back home,” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute tells Politico in a wide-ranging interview. “In 2019, the comparable number [for Central Americans] was 8,000; last year, it was about 5,500. There really is no line for a Central American to get into.”
Colombia peace update: April 3, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Fighting continues between Venezuelan military and 10th Front dissident group
Nearly two weeks since Venezuelan security forces attacked a FARC dissident group in Apure, along the border with Colombia, unusually intense combat continues, displacing large numbers of civilians.
On March 21, Venezuelan armed forces carried out bombings and land raids on six sites used by the 10th Front, an ex-FARC group. The New York Times called it “several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades.” Venezuelan forces also carried out house-to-house raids in border towns like La Victoria and El Ripial, terrorizing the population.
The 10th Front, made up of a few former FARC guerrillas and many new recruits, is affiliated with the 1st Front headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” Colombia’s largest network of ex-FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilize. It is one of three Colombian armed groups active inside Venezuela in this part of the border zone. Venezuela’s military operations have not affected the other two: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and a second dissident group, the “Nueva Marquetalia,” which is led by Iván Márquez, who had headed the FARC’s negotiating team during 2012-16 peace talks.
The 10th Front has retaliated repeatedly. It has attacked a local office of Venezuela’s taxation agency, knocked out electrical power, attacked Army road checkpoints, and destroyed a Russian-made armored personnel carrier with either a rocket-propelled grenade or an improvised explosive device. “That civilian and military facilities are being damaged is something we had not seen to date,” Fr. Eduardo Soto, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela, toldVenezuela’s Tal Cual.
Estimates of the combat’s toll are high. Venezuelan officials cite nine dead, including four soldiers, along with 32 arrests and nine guerrilla dissident camps destroyed. The 10th Front denies that any of its fighters have been captured or killed.
Venezuelan human rights group statements, and press interviews with refugees who have crossed the river into Colombia’s also-conflictive department of Arauca, reveal many testimonies of Venezuelan soldiers and members of the notorious Police Special Actions Forces (FAES) unit raiding homes, looting possessions, dragging people into the street and beating them, forcing people to hold weapons while photographing them, detaining people and holding them incommunicado, and massacring a family in El Ripial, presenting the dead as combatants. The guerrilla dissidents, meanwhile, are accused of widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines and explosives.
On March 31 Venezuelan forces detained two reporters with the NTN24 news network, along with two members of the FundaRedes human rights group. They were released after 24 hours, without their cameras, mobile phones, or other equipment. A statement from Venezuela’s Defense Ministry mentioned “media scoundrels that deploy their dirty manipulations to fuel violence” in the region. “The role that NGOs are playing in this operation is striking,” it added.
As of March 31, Colombia’s migration agency had counted 4,741 people displaced by the fighting, who had taken refuge in 19 shelters in Arauquita, Colombia. That represents more than 10 percent of Arauquita municipality’s estimated population of 44,000. About 40 percent are children. At least several hundred of the displaced have Colombian citizenship but had settled on the Venezuelan side of the border. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is in Arauquita helping with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks. An unknown number of people have also displaced to other parts of Venezuela.
It is not clear why Venezuela has chosen to confront the 10th Front to the exclusion of other Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory, or why it has done so now. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, claims that Nicolás Maduro’s regime “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business” and that it “orders that one narco-criminal group be combated selectively.” Most educated guesses do point to a corrupt relationship between Venezuelan security forces and organized crime.
Caracas may have decided to favor the “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group, or perhaps, the Washington Post posits, “the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.”
An unnamed expert cited in El Espectador had a lengthy hypothesis:
An expert consulted by this newspaper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that drug trafficking in the area involves “paying extortion, or a bribe, to public entities, particularly to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). According to the expert, since 2019, both the dissidents of the Segunda Marquetalia, as well as those of Gentil Duarte, began to default on payments. “That undoubtedly generated a series of tensions with the FANB that escalated.”
…The expert added that the 10th Front began to increase the volume of drug trafficking passing through the route. “Then more members of the FANB began to charge and raise the rates. That’s when ‘Ferley’ appeared, he is the finance chief of the 10th Front and he began to have disputes with people in the FANB,” this person added.
The same article cited Sebastiana Barráez, a Venezuelan journalist, contending that “the sympathies that have been expressed, even by Nicolás Maduro himself, have been towards Iván Márquez, not towards Gentil Duarte.” Still, the Segunda Marquetalia presence in the region is less notable. “They have a strange presence because it is not so clear to identify who their combatants are, at least in Arauca and Apure,” researcher Naryi Vargas told El Espectador.
At the moment it is impossible to predict whether the violence will die down or escalate. The dissidents are showing a much greater willingness to keep attacking the Venezuelan forces than they do in Colombia, where attacks on military targets are usually followed by lengthy retreats.
The dissidents are reportedly calling for negotiations that might lead to a truce with the Venezuelan regime. Over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan organizations sent a March 31 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres asking him to name a special envoy to mediate, since the Colombian government and the regime in Venezuela have almost no remaining contacts with each other.
The two governments continue to ramp up bellicose rhetoric. While Colombia’s defense minister alleges Caracas is colluding with the Nueva Marquetalia, Venezuela’s defense minister insists that the Colombian armed groups “cross the river, make their skirmishes and return to Colombia with the protection of their authorities.” A Venezuelan Defense Ministry communiqué even sought to bring the United States into the picture:
They [the armed groups] are sponsored by the Colombian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is why their incursions into the Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque, since he provides them with logistical and financial support, creating a criminal corridor on the border with the advice of the U.S. Southern Command.”
Though the probability of escalation into inter-state conflict remains low, it can’t be discarded. “This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” an unnamed human rights worker told the Guardian. The paper went on: “The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. ‘I would say it is making it worse.’”
Car bombing raises concern about Cauca’s deteriorating security situation
The department of Cauca, in southwest Colombia, remains one of the most conflictive parts of the country. On March 26, a car bomb detonated in the center of Corinto, in the northern part of the department not far from Cali. Last week also saw the murder of a judicial police investigator near Corinto, and the forced displacement of 2,000 people in Argelia, in the department’s south.
The car bomb went off next to the mayor’s office in Corinto, wounding 43 people including 11 municipal employees. President Iván Duque said that a FARC dissident group powerful in the area, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, was responsible. The Dagoberto Ramos, like the 10th Front in Arauca and Venezuela, is believed to be part of the dissident network headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the 1st Front. Led by a former mid-level FARC leader named Johany Noscué alias “Mayimbú,” the unit has carried out some bloody high-profile attacks, including the 2019 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality. The dissidents and the armed forces had been fighting in a nearby village in the days leading up to the bombing.
The Dagoberto Ramos unit is also believed responsible for the March 27 kidnapping and murder of Mario Fernando Herrera, an investigator with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Herrera was taken on March 26 at a roadblock that the dissidents had set up on the road between Corinto and the northern Cauca municipality of Santander de Quilichao. HIs body was found the next day.
Further south in Argelia, fighting remains intense between the ELN and another dissident group purportedly aligned with “Gentil Duarte,” the Carlos Patiño front. (To make things more complicated, this region also has a dissident group aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia, and the two have poor relations: Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses observed last year that Argelia may be the only zone where units of the two dissident networks are fighting each other.) ELN-dissident firefights have left residences riddled with bullets and shrapnel in the middle of the town of El Plateado, Argelia. Starting on March 27, 2,000 residents fled “at great speed.” Most headed for the county seat of Argelia, where many are gathered in the main church and the soccer arena.
Cauca has only about 1.35 million people, but has always been over-represented in measures of violence. It is strategically located for narcotrafficking, with coca fields, laboratories, and routes leading to Pacific transshipment points. Northern Cauca is also a center of Colombia’s illicit marijuana trade, with grow lights dotting the region’s hillsides at night. Illicit mining is common, especially near the Pacific. It is one of Colombia’s most ethnically diverse departments, but indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have historically been poor and excluded from political power, which has concentrated in the hands of a European-descended elite. Its topography is complex: Colombia’s three Andean mountain chains all converge there in what’s called the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif).
Cauca leads the country in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since 2016. So far in 2021, the department has suffered four massacres. The homicide rate in 2020 was 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than all but four or five U.S. cities. The ELN, three dissident units, a fragment of the EPL, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group all operate in Cauca, as do smaller regional organized crime groups.
Argelia social leader Walter Aldana described the situation to El Espectador:
What we have today in the department of Cauca is the presence of eight or ten illegal armed groups that exercise power and dominion in the territories. They fight among themselves for territorial control. But whoever is there at the time is the authority in the territory. For more than a year, since before the pandemic, we have had a curfew from 7 o’clock at night—depending on the armed group and how they want to handle things.
In response to all this, “the government has recurred to old formulas,” wrote Santiago Torrado at Spain’s El País, “such as holding a security council meeting, announcing the deployment of 2,000 uniformed personnel in addition to the 8,000 already in the department, and offering rewards for the ringleaders.”
“The improvisation, the lack of planning, the lack of systematic persecution of crime is very evident,” wrote Alfonso Luna Geller, of the group Proclama del Cauca, at El Espectador. “The military and police are always surprised. It seems that there is no military or police intelligence, no strategic or tactical operations, because they have been replaced by useless security councils. … The National Government only appears to make bombastic and opportunistic declarations on the smoking streets of our towns.”
“The only way to transform these conditions is with transformations driven by the State as a whole,” former human rights ombudsman Carlos Negret told Torrado. “With long-term policies and not with circumstantial projects; with sustainable and durable decisions, and not with fire extinguishers that sooner rather than later use up their loads. I believe that implementation of the peace agreement has many of these elements”.
- 25 U.S. and Colombian organizations sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to cease funding for aerial herbicide fumigation in territories where farmers grow coca, before Colombia’s government re-starts the suspended program.
- From Vorágine and Connectas, a new accusation that the government’s coca eradication statistics are artificially inflated: eradicators “arrived at the coca fields to negotiate with the landowner. This was a ‘pact’ in which the eradicators only completed half of their task or did it badly on purpose: they did not uproot the bush from its roots, but only stripped it halfway down its stem.”
- Mutante, Baudó AP, and La Liga Contra el Silencio published an investigation alleging that nine farmers were killed in the context of coca eradication operations in 2020. The total death toll for coca eradication in 2020, then, was 25, since the Defense Ministry reported 16 eradicators or security-force escorts killed last year.
- The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy published a “Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One,” which places emphasis on access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and “a collective and comprehensive response” to supply reduction in Latin America. It does not specifically mention forced eradication of illicit crops.
- The State Department’s annual human rights report draws attention to some of the more notable abuses that took place in 2020, while noting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law.”
- Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo that the JEP’s estimate of 6,402 victims of military “false positive” killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 “is a figure that seeks to create a negative image of our Armed Forces and extort the real debate, the one we need so that this country can have forces with greater legitimacy.”
- An InsightCrime investigation into armed groups’ recruitment of children finds “the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca [Antioquia] and the Amazon state of Vaupés.”
- It has been a year since Salvatore Mancuso, once a top leader of Colombia’s national AUC paramilitary network, completed a criminal sentence for narcotrafficking in the United States. He remains in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, seeking to prevent his deportation to Colombia, either by staying in the United States under the Convention Against Torture, or being removed to Italy, as he is a dual citizen. By video, Mancuso has been sharing information with the JEP and the Truth Commission. He is revealing names of military officers and civilian third parties who aided and abetted the right-wing groups that, at the conflict’s peak in the late 90s and early 00s, committed the majority of killings and forced displacements.
- Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, a longtime personal friend of President Iván Duque, drew criticism this week for indicting one of the opposition-party candidates with highest poll numbers ahead of March 2022 presidential elections, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. The Fiscalía is accusing Fajardo of a 2013 case of contracting irregularities: approving a loan to the Antioquia government that was denominated in dollars, without first performing a risk study.
- Fiscal General Barbosa paid a visit to the United States this week, where he met with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Marshals representatives, among others. Barbosa’s delegation included Gabriel Jaimes, the prosecutor in the super-high-profile witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe. Jaimes has asked to drop the charges in Uribe’s case, and will present arguments before a judge on April 6. Investigative journalist Daniel Coronell points out that the majority of witnesses on Uribe’s behalf in this case have some relationship with the Oficina de Envigado, an organized crime structure descended from the old Medellín cartel.
- Without Catholic Church-led organizing and a 1993 law recognizing Afro-descendant communities’ collective landholdings, the jungles of Chocó “could have been destroyed by the logging interests of the time,” says Quibdó Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto in an interesting interview with La Silla Vacía. “If it weren’t for that work, we would have this forest full of monocultures and agribusiness.”
- The Colombian government appears determined to move ahead with a US$4.5 billion purchase of 24 F-16 fighter jets. This is controversial because the contract, equivalent to more than 1 percent of GDP, comes at a time when resources are lacking for other priorities, like peace accord implementation.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, April 5
- 8:30 at atlanticcouncil.org: Emerging markets recovery in 2021: A conversation with Mexico’s Finance Minister Herrera (RSVP required).
- 10:30 at atlanticcouncil.org: Leaders of the Americas: A conversation with H.E. Carlos Alvarado, President of Costa Rica (RSVP required).
Tuesday, April 6
- 10:00 at cries.org: América Latina y el impacto de la pandemia del COVID-19 (RSVP required).
- 3:00-4:15 at wola.org: “None of the Above”: Peru’s Fragmented Politics and the April 11 Elections (RSVP required).
Wednesday, April 7
- 10:00-11:00 at wola.org: Civil Society in Colombia’s Catatumbo Region Demand a Humanitarian Accord, Not Militarization (RSVP required).
- 10:00-11:00 at thedialogue.org: Developments in the US-China-Mexico Triangular Dynamic (RSVP required).
- 11:00-11:45 at heritage.org: Democratic Socialism: A Warning from Venezuela (RSVP required).
- 12:00 at wola.org: Report Launch: Defending Human Rights in Venezuela (RSVP required).
- 3:00-5:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Argentina’s Lithium Industry and its Role in the Global Renewable Energy Transformation (RSVP required).
Thursday, April 8
- 10:00-1:00 at thedialogue.org: ¿Cómo medimos la calidad de los servicios de educación inicial en América Latina? (RSVP required).
- 11:00-12:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Digital Autocracy: Maduro’s control of the Venezuelan information environment (RSVP required).
- 3:00 at FundaRedes: Refugiados venezolanos y colombianos entre la espada y la pared (RSVP required).
- 7:30-9:00pm at mobilize.us: Wall of Nations: Mexico, Guatemala and the New Southern Border (RSVP required).