Hello! Sorry to have neglected to send an email last week. I had to respond to an urgent request from a legislative office, which coincided with a 3-day trip to New York to visit family (everyone is vaccinated now, I saw my father IRL for the first time since 2019). This meant I had to sacrifice my usual "assemble a newsletter" time.
Things are back to normal in this email. There's a podcast, some weekly updates, and a lot of links to upcoming events about Latin America. And a few tweets that made me laugh.
WOLA Podcast: “The Border Situation Viewed from Mexico”
The WOLA Podcast continues to cover the situation at the border, this time what’s happening in Mexico. There, the Biden administration has been leaning on the national government to send more security forces and accept more expelled Central American families. I gathered four colleagues for what turned out to be a really informative discussion about the current moment, and it’s not good.
As migrants from Central American countries flee instability at home, Mexico is increasingly a final destination for them. COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, received a record number of asylum requests in March 2021. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struck deals with Mexico (and other regional governments) to militarize its southern border. The consequences of such deals means migrants will face more dangers in their journey north, including from state actors.
Despite the unfortunate response from regional governments, non-governmental actors are working hard to ensure that migrants lucky enough to make it into Mexico or the United States are supported and treated with dignity. This conversation details what is happening on the ground in Mexico, as well as what civilian groups in the United States are doing to support the first people to enter the United States as “Remain in Mexico” winds down.
We are joined by four WOLA staff experts:
- Maureen Meyer, Vice President for Programs;
- Stephanie Brewer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights;
- Matthew Bocanumenth, Program Assistant for Border and Migration (and Colombia); and
- Moses Ngong, Program Assistant for Mexico and Migrant Rights.
Weekly Border Update: April 16, 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.
Tucson Police Chief is CBP commissioner nominee
On April 12 the Biden White House revealed its nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that includes Border Patrol and all land, sea, and air ports of entry. Chris Magnus, the current chief of police of Tucson, Arizona, would be only the second Senate-confirmed CBP commissioner since January 2017: except for Kevin McAleenan’s 13-month tenure in 2018 and 2019, all commissioners since then have been in an “acting” role.
A native of Michigan, Magnus has served as police chief in Fargo, North Dakota; Richmond, California; and, since 2016, Tucson, a city about an hour’s drive from the U.S.-Mexico border. While heading this 1,000-person department, he has favored community policing, de-escalation, and other law enforcement strategies often labeled as “progressive.” Magnus was the 2020 recipient of the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF’s) Leadership Award. (The Obama administration, under then-CBP commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, had hired PERF to perform a 2014 review of the agency’s use-of-force policies.)
Though he opposed a 2019 ballot initiative to declare Tucson a “sanctuary city” refusing to share information with ICE about detained individuals, Magnus has a broadly liberal record, which at times has earned him “frosty” relations with Border Patrol, as the Washington Post put it.
- In 2014, as chief of the Bay Area city of Richmond, California, Magnus was photographed holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign.
- In March 2017, he cut short his department’s cooperation with a Border Patrol manhunt for an apprehended migrant who had escaped a hospital, angering the agency. The following year, Border Patrol’s hardline union, which endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, called Magnus “an ultraliberal social engineer who was given a badge and a gun by the City of Tucson” in a Facebook post.
- In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Magnus argued that the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies were complicating law enforcement because undocumented communities were less willing to come forward with information.
- In June 2018 he tweeted strong opposition to the Trump administration’s child separations policy, asking, “Is this consistent with the oath you took to serve & protect? Is this humane or moral? Does this make your community safer?”
- He opposed the Trump administration’s border wall in December 2018 congressional testimony and a February 2019 NPR interview.
- In 2019, amid an increase in asylum-seeking migration, Magnus tweeted, “it’s worth being reminded why human beings flee from their homelands in the first place (not unlike a lot of our ancestors).”
- In 2020, Magnus refused to accept so-called “Stonegarden” grants to local law enforcement from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), because the administration was prohibiting expenditures for humanitarian aid to asylum seekers.
Magnus’s nomination received statements of support from both of Arizona’s Democratic senators. If confirmed, he would be the first openly gay CBP commissioner.
The White House also revealed its nominee to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, the DHS component that runs legal immigration, including refugee and asylum processing). As expected, it is Ur Jaddou, who was a senior USCIS official during the Obama administration. During the Trump years, Jaddou worked at the progressive immigration reform group America’s Voice, where she ran an oversight campaign called DHS Watch.
The Biden administration has yet to name a director to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Unaccompanied children situation may be easing; family expulsions continue
Data about unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody point to a modest easing of the situation, after weeks of concern about children packed into inadequate CBP and Border Patrol facilities. As of April 14:
- Border Patrol had apprehended a daily average of 431 unaccompanied non-Mexican children so far this week, down from an average of 475 per day the previous week and 489 the week before that.
- The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has been taking over 700 children per day out of CBP custody during the past two weeks, placing them in its network of shelters and emergency facilities.
- With more kids leaving CBP custody than entering it, the number stuck in CBP’s holding facilities has dropped sharply, from 5,767 on March 28 to 2,581 on April 14. CNN reported on April 12, however, that the average child still spends about 122 hours in CBP custody, far exceeding the 72 hours required by law.
- The number in ORR’s shelter network has marched steadily upward, from 11,551 on March 23 to 19,537 on April 14. It should top 20,000 any day now.
- ORR still faces challenges in getting kids out of its shelters, placing them with relatives or sponsors in the United States. ORR discharged a daily average of 281 children per day last week, which increased only to 283 per day so far this week.
- Subtracting the number leaving ORR custody from the number newly entering CBP custody reveals the net daily overall increase of children in the U.S. government’s care. That daily increase averaged 194 children per day last week, and 148 per day so far this week. For the population of unaccompanied kids in U.S. custody to fall, this daily number needs to fall into negative territory. On this chart, the green needs to start exceeding the blue:
Getting children out of ORR custody is the most urgent bottleneck right now. While more than 80 percent of children have relatives in the United States, shelters still must perform some vetting to ensure that they are not inadvertently handing children off to traffickers. The agency has also been occupied trying to stand up large temporary facilities around the country to create space to get kids out of CBP’s austere holding spaces.
Reuters reports that White House officials—especially domestic policy adviser and Obama-era national security advisor Susan Rice—are exerting pressure on ORR and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to move faster. A source tells the wire service that “getting yelled at” in interagency meetings is taking a toll on ORR and HHS staff. “Everyone’s working around the clock, and there’s a big morale issue,” an official said. “These are people who signed up to help kids.”
ORR “has temporarily waived some vetting requirements, including most background checks on adults who live in the same household as sponsors who are close relatives,” according to Reuters, and has reduced the amount of time children spend in its shelters from 42 to 31 days. Still, Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, told Reuters that the majority of kids in the emergency shelters still don’t have case managers assigned to them to begin vetting their relatives.
As the number of unaccompanied children newly arriving declines, it’s likely that the number of migrants arriving as intact family units continues to increase. While we haven’t seen numbers from April, this was the fastest-growing category of apprehended migrant at the border in March, growing 174 percent over February.
Unlike unaccompanied children, the Biden administration is endeavoring to use a Trump-era pandemic order to expel back into Mexico, in a matter of hours, as many families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (the “Northern Triangle” countries) as it can. In nearly all cases, these so-called “Title 42” expulsions happen without regard to families’ fear of returning to their countries.
As the number of family members from the Northern Triangle increases (40,582 in March), Mexico has hit limits. It is accepting expulsions of a larger number, but a smaller percentage, of families: about 31 percent of the total in March. Mexico cites a late 2020 law that prohibits detention of children in adult facilities. Mexico’s law “certainly snuck up on us,” a senior Biden administration official told the Washington Post.
Of the nine sectors into which CBP divides the border, by far the most arrive in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. There, Border Patrol is processing families outdoors under the Anzalduas International Bridge near McAllen and at a nearly adjacent temporary site known as TOPS. Indoor processing happens at a large tent facility in nearby Donna. These sites are mostly off-limits to reporters, but the Rio Grande Valley Monitor shared some drone footage this week showing Border Patrol agents with bullhorns lining families up on benches.
CBP continues to expel large numbers of Central American families, particularly those with older children, each day from the Rio Grande Valley into dangerous Mexican border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros. When Mexico refuses expulsions in this region, DHS puts about 200 family members per day on planes to El Paso and San Diego, from where they expel them into Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. (100 per day per city appears to be a limit that Mexico has set.)
Expelled migrants interviewed by the New Humanitarian in Juárez and by the San Diego Union Tribune in Tijuana coincide in saying that U.S. agents “tricked” them, lying that they were being admitted into the United States while boarding them on aircraft out of Texas. They only discovered they were returned to Mexico after their U.S. escorts left them there. Both border cities have seen distraught Central American parents forced to ask strangers what city they were in.
In Tijuana, Mexican authorities give the families a 30-day permit to remain in the country with instructions to return to their home countries. They are then taken to one of the city’s very full, mostly charity-run, migrant shelters.
Meanwhile, as last week’s update noted, more than 11 expelled families per day appear to be making the terrible decision to separate while in Mexican territory. Knowing that unaccompanied children aren’t being expelled, parents who find themselves returned to Mexico are sending their children to walk north, across the border, alone. CNN—which reported that Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol had apprehended, in a 28-day period, 435 unaccompanied children who had already been expelled with their parents—spoke to tearful expelled parents who had said goodbye to their children at the borderline.
Mexico’s deployment of forces gets scrutiny
Senior officials revealed this week that the Biden administration recently reached agreements with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to deploy more security forces to deter migration, without mention of migrants’ protection or asylum needs. These agreements appear to be informal rather than written.
Tyler Moran, the White House Domestic Policy Council’s special assistant to the President for immigration, toldMSNBC on April 12, “We’ve secured agreements for them to put more troops on their own border. Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala have all agreed to do this.” Moran insisted that such action “not only is going to prevent the traffickers, and the smugglers, and cartels that take advantage of the kids on their way here, but also to protect those children.”
Later that day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave reporters a bit more detail.
[T]here have been a series of bilateral discussions between our leadership and the regional governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. Through those discussions, there was a commitment, as you mentioned, to increase border security.
So, Mexico made the decision to maintain 10,000 troops at its southern border, resulting in twice as many daily migrant interdictions. Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route. Honduras surged 7,000 police and military to disperse a large contingent of migrants.
Psaki attributed these moves to “discussions with the region about what steps can be taken to help reduce the number of migrants who are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border,” adding, “I think the objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey and make crossing the borders more—more difficult.”
This was news in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, where leaders had made no prior reference to agreements with the United States. Honduras’s defense minister, Fredy Díaz, confirmed that an agreement existed. He added that at the moment, his country is not moving new security forces to its border with Guatemala to interdict migrants. Instead, he told the Honduran network HRN, his ministry is working on a plan for military support to police to slow migration, insisting that “the armed forces have stood out for their respect for the law and human rights.”
On April 13 Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, confirmed to reporters that his government had deployed at least 12,000 officials to the country’s southern region, including immigration agents, soldiers and national guardsmen, and health and child welfare officials. Mexico had said on March 22 that nearly 9,000 troops and guardsmen were stationed near its northern and southern borders.
López Obrador portrayed the deployment as an effort to protect migrant children. “We’ve never seen trafficking of minors on this scale,” he said, adding, “To protect children we are going to reinforce the surveillance, the protection, the care on our southern border because it’s to defend human rights.” The president appeared to allege that smugglers are using children to help migrants pass as family units, a practice that occurs, but not frequently.
López Obrador said he will meet next week with the governors of Mexico’s southern states that border Guatemala and Belize, and that the director of the country’s child and family welfare agency (DIF) would relocate for some time to the southern border-zone city of Tapachula. He promised that Mexico would accompany the United States in increasing investments to create economic opportunity and alleviate migration’s “push factors” in Central America, including through aid programs like “Sembrando Vida” and “Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro,” which to date have devoted very few resources.
Tonatiuh Guillén, a leading Mexican migration expert who briefly headed Mexico’s migration authority (INM) at the beginning of the López Obrador government, lamented to the Guardian that his country’s migration system has “turned into a very strong and very heavy control apparatus, largely due to pressure from the U.S. government.”Reporting from the remote Mexico-Guatemala border crossing of Frontera Corozal, however, Guardian reporter David Agren saw no evidence of a crackdown: “it looked like business as usual” as Central American families crossed the Usumacinta River and began a long walk through the edges of the Lacandón jungle en route to Palenque, Chiapas.
Some Mexican security forces are arrayed along this jungle route, Agren reported, manning checkpoints. “But migrants said they simply paid to pass through – or were robbed by the officers they met.” The prevalence of corruption among the Mexican forces deployed to control movement in the southern border zone is a large unaddressed factor as the López Obrador government sends more personnel. “It’s a cartel. They’re acting in cahoots with smugglers…with taxi and bus drivers. It’s a network taking advantage of migrants,” Father Gabriel Romero of the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique told Agren. Added Guillén, the former INM director: “Governments in Mexico, the United States and Central America have never really put much of an effort into controlling these trafficking organizations.”
No pause to border wall property seizures in Texas
The White House’s 2022 discretionary funding request to Congress, a summary document known as the “skinny budget,” would end border wall construction. It requests $1.2 billion for CBP’s border security infrastructure needs, but specifies that none will go toward border barriers. It also “proposes the cancellation of prior-year balances that are unobligated at the end of 2021,” shutting down any previously funded construction.
That doesn’t necessarily stop border wall construction, however, during fiscal 2021, which ends on September 30. For now, wall-building has been “paused” since Inauguration Day, but contracts have not been canceled. As noted in last week’s update, CBP may have communicated to DHS a preference to continue building in areas where the pause in construction has left “gaps.”
In south Texas, where most land bordering the Rio Grande is privately held, the Justice Department has not stoppedeminent domain proceedings to seize more than 215 property owners’ land for wall construction. On April 13 the Cavazos family, which has held riverfront property since Texas was under Spanish rule, saw a court order the condemnation of 6 1/2 acres of its farmland. “We are utterly devastated,” Baudilla Cavazos said in a statement. “We thought President Joe Biden would protect us. Now we’ve lost our land. We don’t even know what comes next.”
In February, the Justice Department had postponed the Cavazos family’s land seizure case, which has been before a U.S. district court. When it came up again in April, Justice did not seek to postpone again, for unclear reasons.
Throughout the border zone, environmental activists and tribal leaders “are urging the government to begin habitat restoration efforts and take down sections of wall that are blocking wildlife migration pathways so that animals can once again move freely,” the Arizona Republic reported in a very detailed piece documenting damage to desert ecosystems. In Arizona, “We watched in horror as construction crews dynamited our ancestors’ gravesites, chopped ceremonial plants to bits and cleaved our sacred lands in two with a deadly mass of metal,” wrote Tohono O’odham Nation community organizer Hon’mana Seukteoma in a Medium column. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, called for a return to the formula of immigration reform with a large increase in border security, which he called “high wall, big gate.”
- In a new edition of WOLA’s Podcast, four staff experts look at Mexico’s response to the increase in migration, including Mexico’s U.S.-encouraged deployment of security forces and acceptance of more expelled Central American families.
- Vice President Kamala Harris has been learning about “root causes” of migration from Central America, including a virtual meeting on April 13 with directors of several organizations (including WOLA). She may visit the region “soon.” As the Biden administration’s point person for working with the region, the vice president faces the dilemma of working with Central American leaders who “are considered complicit” in creating some of the conditions causing people to migrate, the Los Angeles Times observes.
- Local activists ridiculed Republican members of Congress who, on a visit to the Rio Grande Valley, boarded a Texas Department of Public Security gunboat. Wearing tactical vests and with a Fox News crew in tow, the delegation motored past a playground, waterslide, and picnic areas on the Mexican side of the river.
- Asked repeatedly about the border and migration situation at an April 13 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the general and admiral who command U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command sought to emphasize the multiple, complex causes of the current large-scale migration and the need for a “whole of government” response.
- A report and series of working papers from the Migration Policy Institute surveys how “to lay the foundation for a regional migration system that privileges safe, orderly, and legal movement,” evaluating current legal frameworks and asylum capacity in Mexico, the Northern Triangle, Costa Rica, and Panama.
- At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux talked to beleaguered humanitarian volunteers helping asylum-seeking families whom Border Patrol, upon releasing them from custody, is leaving in Arizona desert towns with few services.
- In a key family separation lawsuit, the Biden administration’s Justice Department has decided not to share internal documents revealing the Trump administration’s decisionmaking leading up to the 2018 “zero tolerance” policy that caused DHS to take thousands of migrant children away from their parents. Among the documents that will remain classified, NBC News reports, is “the agenda from a May 3, 2018 meeting, which… included a show of hands vote to move forward with separating families.”
- Reuters points out that the White House’s 2022 “skinny budget” includes a 22 percent increase in funding for internal affairs offices at CBP and ICE, partially to “ensure that workforce complaints—‘including those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs’—are investigated quickly.”
Colombia Peace Update: April 17, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Decree, issued the day of high-level U.S. visit, signals imminent restart of aerial herbicide fumigation
On April 11 and 12 Colombia received its highest-level in-person visit to date from Biden administration officials. Special Assistant to the President and Senior National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung were in Bogotá, where they met for two hours with President Iván Duque and other high government officials. It was the first stop on a South America trip that took González and Chung later to Argentina and Uruguay.
According to a pre-trip White House statement, the officials were to “discuss economic recovery, security and rural development, the Venezuelan migrant crisis, and Colombia’s regional climate leadership.” Colombian media reportedthat issues covered included security, “the fight against drug trafficking and transnational crime,” progress in peace accord implementation, economic recovery, and Venezuelan migration.
While perhaps unrelated, hours after the U.S. officials’ visit the Duque government issued a long-expected decreelaying out how it will carry out a revived aerial fumigation program. The term refers to spraying herbicides from aircraft over populated areas where farmers grow coca, the crop used to make cocaine. The U.S. government heavily supported a fumigation program between 1994 and 2015, which sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory.
Herbicide fumigation was a key component of the strategy known as “Plan Colombia,” and it was controversial because it rarely came with assistance to smallholding farmers, and because communities denounced environmental and health harms. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the program in 2015, after a World Health Organization study determined that the active chemical, glyphosate, could be carcinogenic.
In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of conditions that a future government would have to fulfill before ever restarting a fumigation program, and in 2018, newly elected President Duque made clear his intention to do that. Sources in the Presidency tell La Silla Vacía that they may meet these conditions, and the spray planes could start working, as early as June.
The required steps—summarized here in a way that omits some nuance—are:
✔️ By decree, set up a system for evaluating health and environmental impacts that is independent of the Counternarcotics Police, which carries out fumigation. The April 12 decree establishes this system, requiring the Counternarcotics Police to report monthly to environmental and other agencies.
✔️ By decree, set up an independent process for receiving and processing claims from individuals who say they were wrongly sprayed. The April 12 decree establishes this process.
✔️ Gain the environmental licensing authority’s (ANLA’s) approval for the spray program’s environmental management plan. The ANLA issued its approval two days after the Presidency’s decree, on April 14. The plan prohibits the planes from spraying from an altitude greater than 30 meters (98 feet), or in conditions when wind might cause more than 10 meters of spray drift.
The 507-page document also notes that spraying may occur in 104 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities, in the departments of Antioquía, Bolívar, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Chocó, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Vichada. Planes may use bases in San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; Cumaribo, Vichada; Villagarzón, Putumayo; Larandia, Caquetá; Tumaco, Nariño; Guapi, Cauca; Barrancabermeja, Santander; Caucasia, Antioquia; Cúcuta and Tibú, Norte de Santander; Condoto, Chocó; and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz said that Norte de Santander and its conflictive Catatumbo region will come first. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s crop monitoring report covering 2019, Catatumbo has the country’s largest concentration of coca crops.
✔️ Have the National Health Institute (INS, sort of like the United States’ Centers for Disease Control) perform a study finding that the planned spraying poses a low health risk. While this study, commissioned to the University of Córdoba, won’t be made public until the entire process is complete, it is all but finished.
🔲 Gain the approval of the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government. The CNE has the authority to undo the spray program’s 2015 suspension. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen quickly.
Among the CNE’s members, though, is Health Minister Fernando Ruiz who, when serving as a vice-minister during Juan Manuel Santos’s government in 2015, defended the fumigation program’s suspension on public health grounds. “The main cancer attributed to glyphosate is Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer in the lymphatic organ that can develop 15 to 20 years after exposure,” Ruiz told an interviewer. This puts the Minister in an awkward position. He is seeking to have an alternate take his place in the CNE proceedings as an “ad hoc” minister who might approve the fumigation.
With this week’s decree and environmental approval, and with a decree last week (reported in our last update) seeking to divert challenges to fumigation away from the courts, the fight over fumigation “seems to have tipped in favor of the government,” El Espectador reported.
Critics like María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED) contend that the April 12 decree is flawed. It “is focused on reaction and not on prevention, as it explains how complaints of possible damages will be handled, but not how to prevent them,” she told El Espectador. Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia worries that the ANLA and other agencies charged with oversight have almost no presence in remote areas where spraying will occur. Ana María Rueda of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz recalls that the program’s design appears to violate the peace accord: “The spirit of the Accord… was that first, crop substitution should be tried with communities and, if it did not work, then spraying would operate. That was what the [Constitutional] Court asked for, but we do not see it anywhere in the decree.”
A major objection has to do with the Constitutional Court’s requirement that the environmental approval process include informed consultation with communities, especially Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. The Court has agreed to take up several communities’ complaint that, from remote areas with poor internet service, they haven’t been able to participate meaningfully in “virtual” consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court’s action on the consultation question could be a “roadblock” that prevents fumigation from restarting in June, according to an El Espectador analysis.
If fumigation does restart in coming weeks or months, we can expect a wave of protest across rural Colombia, as happened in 1996 (with heavy FARC encouragement) when the program first got started. The protests might not be massive, though, notes a La Silla Vacía analysis based on interviews with coca growers’ organization leaders in six zones. The investigation finds these organizations weakened by the worsening security situation as new armed groups proliferate, the difficulty of doing organizing work in a climate of constant threats and killings of social leaders, and a social base demotivated by the government’s poor compliance with the peace accord’s crop substitution commitments. “The communities saw fumigation as something off in the distance,” said Pedro Arenas of Viso Mutop.
After the decree’s release, Colombia’s pugnaciously hardline defense minister, Diego Molano, said, “the only ones worried here about precise aerial spraying against coca, which we are about to start, must be the criminals who profit from this criminal business and want to subject our peasant population to a new slavery.”
Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, a much-cited scholar of rural Colombia, offered a sharply different view in an El Espectadorcolumn:
Prioritizing fumigation over substitution is a brutal violation of everything the peace accord stood for. It has two notorious consequences. On the one hand, it affects the core of the agreement (which sought to build a new form of relationship between the central state and the territories). On the other, it carries high legitimacy costs…
an aggression from distant forces that have no regard for the population’s interests
Fighting appears reduced, but situation is very tense, in Venezuela border zone
“From Arauquita, Arauca, no explosions have been heard for a week on the other side of the river, on the Venezuelan side,” La Silla Vacía reported on April 12. There has been a notable lull in the combat that began on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and the “10th Front” FARC dissident group—one of three guerrilla or rearmed guerrilla groups active in Venezuela’s border state of Apure. The official toll of dead and injured has not increased since last week’s update. Security analyst Andrei Serbín (interviewed in this week’s WOLA Venezuela podcast) told Tal Cualthere has been a “considerable reduction” in fighting in recent days, but that “doesn’t mean that the threat has been eliminated. The FARC has this ability to lower its profile, avoid confrontation and attack elsewhere.”
The halt in fighting may owe, too, to the steady arrival of more Venezuelan forces into the zone. In addition to regular military units and the feared FAES police shock force, the Maduro regime announced that it would be sending 1,000 members of the citizen militia. This part-time force, which reports directly to the president, is hardly combat-ready—many of its members are middle-aged or older, or more oriented toward political work than fighting—but it may provide logistical and other backup to the Venezuelan forces arrayed near the Colombian border.
Most of the civilian population, meanwhile, appears to have vacated the zone. Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum said that her government had counted 5,737 Venezuelan citizens displaced into Arauca. Though fighting may have slowed, La Silla Vacía reports, “fear of the excesses that their own country’s authorities may commit is the main reason why the displaced still cannot conceive of returning to their homes.” These include “in addition to fleeing the crossfire… detentions, assaults, looting, and even the murder of a family.” Though they have taken a toll on the civilian population, Serbín points out that the Venezuelan military “hasn’t shown a great capacity. It hasn’t demonstrated results.”
On April 10 the 10th Front FARC dissident group’s putative leader, Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez alias “Arturo,” put out an audio message insisting that his group “doesn’t seek problems” with the Venezuelan armed forces, which have singled out the 10th Front for attack even as the ELN and a second dissident group, the “Segunda Marquetalia,” operate in the same region.
The 10th Front is part of the largest network of former FARC guerrillas to rearm, the so-called “1st Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. The other main network of dissidents, the Segunda Marquetalia, is headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator in Havana but rearmed in 2019. Most of both groups’ rank-and-file membership is new recruits with no past membership in the old FARC.
In his message Arturo, a former FARC front leader who deserted in 2004 and spent time in prison, acknowledged that the 10th Front has differences with the Segunda Marquetalia, and called on the Venezuelan Army to stop collaborating with the rival group. He said he is willing to dialogue.
For his part Iván Márquez, whose group is less visible in the zone but purportedly has closer ties to the Maduro regime, released a video on April 13 insisting that the Segunda Marquetalia does not consider neighboring countries’ forces to be “military targets” or “collect taxes” from—that is, extort—their citizens.
On his television program, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and legislator who is perhaps the second most powerful figure in Nicolás Maduro’s regime, appeared to issue a warning to all Colombian armed groups inside Venezuela, including the Segunda Marquetalia. “Venezuelan territory is impregnable. This applies to any group, no matter who the leader is, no matter what his name is. If they want to wage war against the Colombian government, they should do it in their territory, don’t do it in ours.”
The border-zone situation continues to highlight the very poor state of relations between Colombia and Venezuela. Blum, Colombia’s foreign minister, said on April 14 that she had communicated to the United Nations about the “serious situation” resulting from “the support given by the illegitimate Venezuelan regime to armed narco-terrorist groups.” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza issued a tweet calling Blum “Doña”—a misogynistic putdown—and demanding that Colombia guard its borders and keep Colombian armed groups out of Venezuelan territory.
Decrees make changes to military justice system
A series of three presidential decrees, made public on April 14, aim to increase the autonomy and performance of Colombia’s military justice system, which is charged with trying and punishing military and police personnel who violate their services’ codes of conduct.
While years of Colombian jurisprudence appear to make clear that violations of civilians’ human rights should be tried in the civilian criminal justice system, many cases still do end up in the military system. Once there, guilty verdicts and punishments are exceedingly rare.
“It’s no secret that citizens have a problem of trust” with the military system, an El Espectador questioner pointed out in an interview this week with the system’s current director, adding that “for most Colombians it is equivalent to impunity.” Shockingly, the system is so untransparent and sluggish—tracking cases with Excel spreadsheets and a written method dating back to the 1960s—that its director cannot say how many cases of “false positive” killings its judges have yet to decide (or to transfer to the civilian system).
The new decrees set regulations to implement reform laws passed in 2010 and 2015. They will move the military justice system out of the Defense Ministry’s purview, creating a new Specialized Administrative Unit within the executive branch. The current head of the military justice system, Fabio Espitia, who served for a time as Colombia’s acting chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), will head this new unit. The unit will have its own prosecutor’s office, investigators, tribunals, and judges. It is to use an oral, accusatory trial system instead of the military system’s current slow, opaque system. This should make it easier to see where cases stand, and what has happened. The president of the civilian Supreme Court will have a seat on its board of directors.
While this is a big step toward autonomy for a justice system that had been within the military chain of command, it is not quite autonomous. While out of the Defense Ministry, the system will still be in the government’s executive branch, under the President, and not the judicial branch. All, or nearly all, of its judges will continue to be active-duty or retired military officers. Espitia defended this to El Espectador, insisting that “in military and police operations there is something called operational law, and this is known to those who are part of the forces. It is only natural that it cannot be known by a civilian.”
The separate justice system, too, still applies to police—which remain part of Colombia’s Defense Ministry—even though police are charged with protecting and serving the population, not confronting enemies in battle. Espitia defended this, too, arguing that Colombia is not a typical country: “the police must be in joint operations with the military to disrupt organized crime groups.”
The unfortunate consequence, though, is that police who abuse human rights may see their cases go to the historically more lenient military justice system even when “organized crime groups” have nothing to do with what happened. An egregious recent case placed before the military system is that of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed in downtown Bogotá in November 2019 by a policeman who clearly appeared to be misusing a nonlethal crowd control weapon.
Another major case of police human rights abuse is the rampage of indiscriminate force against protesters that followed the September 9, 2020 police killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez. Over two nights, police killed 13 people in the streets of Bogotá. So far, three policemen have been charged, and their lawyers failed to transfer their cases to the military justice system. There was further good news this week, as the civilian Fiscalía decided to transfer the entire September 2020 Bogotá police riot investigation to its human rights unit. That greatly increases the likelihood of a prosecution that takes the entire context into account, rather than treating the cases like individual, unrelated murders.
- Fr. Fernán González offers a summary of a new book about the ELN published by the Jesuit think tank CINEP. It argues that while the guerrilla group maintains its decentralized, “federated” structure, its center of gravity is shifting toward the front dominated in the eastern department of Arauca, which is the most “successful.” Meanwhile, local organizations that form the ELN’s “social base” are becoming increasingly independent.
- La Silla Vacía sounds alarms about rapidly increasing violence in rural zones of Valle del Cauca department, whose principal cities, Cali and Buenaventura, get most attention. Actors “include armed groups seeking routes from Cauca and Chocó, criminal micro-trafficking groups, silent narcos, returned extradited persons, and a homegrown [ex-FARC] dissidence in Colombia’s third richest department.”
- Just to the south, in the department of Cauca, the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación offers an overview of which armed groups are active in which sub-regions.
- Colombia’s Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) called off a longstanding investigation against former chief of police Rodolfo Palomino. Since 2016, Palomino was being investigated for scandals that occurred during his 2013-2016 tenure: revelations of a male prostitution ring using police cadets, wiretaps of journalists, and an irregular land purchase.
- On April 14 in La Macarena, Meta, Fayber Camilo Cufiño Mondragón became the 264th former FARC combatant killed since the 2016 peace accord.
- Irregular road-building is feeding a sharp rise in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin, Reuters reports. “According to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, more than 280 km [174 miles] of unplanned roads were opened in key areas during the first 100 days of last year. It expects more roads were built in 2020 than in any other year, driven by rising land speculation.”
- The post-accord transitional justice tribunal (JEP) is calling two senior active-duty generals to testify in May. Gen. Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez and Gen. Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings. Today, Rodríguez commands the Army’s Education and Doctrine Command, while Pinto commands the Army’s Second Division in northeastern Colombia.
- FARC dissidents in the Orinoco and Amazon basin departments of Guainía and Vaupés are enriching themselves from illicit mining of the mineral coltan, a source of the elements niobium and tantalum used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronics, El Espectador reports.
- The elements of Colombia’s transitional justice system—the JEP, the Truth Commission, and the Commission to Search for the Disappeared—pledged to assist civil society groups in the search for more than 841 residents of the port city of Buenaventura who disappeared during the conflict. At PRI’s The World, Steven Grattan reports on Buenaventura’s ongoing public security crisis and its impact on social leaders.
- At Anthropology News, Gwen Burnyeat, a junior research fellow at Oxford, looks at how the Santos government’s rational, unemotional, technocratic “peace pedagogy” efforts got steamrolled by accord opponents’ disinformation campaigns in the runup to the failed October 2016 plebiscite.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, April 19
- 3:00-4:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Peru and Ecuador: Elections and Democracy in the Andes (RSVP required).
Tuesday, April 20
- 11:00-12:00 at thedialogue.org: Is Latin America Maximizing (or Missing Out on) China’s International Development Strategy? (RSVP required).
- 11:00-1:00 at institut-fuer-menschenrechte.de: Protección en Colectivo – Defensores y defensoras indígenas de Derechos Humanos en Colombia (RSVP required).
- 8:00pm at amnistia.org.pe: Lanzamiento Virtual del Informe Anual de Amnistía Internacional en Perú (RSVP required).
Wednesday, April 21
- 9:15-10:30 at thedialogue.org: Addressing the Root Causes of Migration from Central America (RSVP required).
- 12:00 at Facebook Live: Violencia, seguridad y militarización: la erradicación de la amapola en México.
- 2:00 at homeland.house.gov: Hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
- 4:00 at venezuelablog.org: Venezuela Conversa: Construction of a New Social Pact (RSVP required).
- 6:00-7:00pm at wola.org: Con Líderes Hay Paz: Support the Work and Protect the Lives of Colombia’s Social Leaders (RSVP required).
Thursday, April 22
- 1:00-2:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Latin America and the Caribbean’s post-COVID-19 outlook (RSVP required).
- 1:30 at crisisgroup.org: Crimen y violencia en la frontera colombo-venezolana (RSVP required).