This week's e-mail has no bells and whistles, just the usual border and Colombia updates, upcoming online events I've seen announcements for, and a reduced number of funny tweets. I'm working on a few publications, podcasts, a video, and hopefully an event that I look forward to sharing over the next month when they're done, but before that happens, there may be a few weeks of bare-bones e-mails like this one. In the meantime, good luck with your work, especially those of you finishing university semesters.
Weekly Border Update: April 23, 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.
Pressure grows to end Title 42
The Biden administration continues to apply “Title 42,” a public health order that the Trump administration put into place at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. As implemented, Title 42 allows Border Patrol to expel migrants it encounters back to their countries of origin—or, if they are Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran, back into Mexico. In most cases, expulsion occurs in as little as an hour or two. In nearly all cases, it occurs without migrants getting any chance to ask for asylum or other protection.
Over 85 percent of single adult migrants and about a third of migrants arriving as families with children are expelled. The Biden administration is not expelling children who arrive unaccompanied, unless they are from Mexico (and a court prohibited the Trump administration, too, from expelling children during its last two months). CBP is flying Central American families every day from south Texas—where Mexico has placed limits on expulsions—to El Paso and San Diego, then expelling them there.
“By sending asylum seekers back to danger without asylum assessments, the administration fails to protect refugees and blatantly violates U.S. refugee laws and treaties,” reads a report published on April 20 by Human Rights First, Al Otro Lado, and the Haitian Bridge Alliance. The product of a big team of researchers, the 33-page document offers an up-to-the-moment view of the suffering that the Biden administration’s application of Title 42 is causing. Failure to Protect is a very informative, but brutal, read.
Its most alarming topline finding: “Human Rights First has tracked at least 492 attacks and kidnappings suffered by asylum seekers turned away or stranded in Mexico since President Biden took office in January 2021.” The organizations count 17 countries, from Russia to Venezuela to Somalia, whose citizens have been expelled since Biden was sworn in. Since February 2021, 27 expulsion flights have sent 1,400 adults and children back to Haiti.
Among the report’s many alarming examples:
- “In February 2021, a 37-year-old asylum seeker who fled Haiti after being kidnapped, beaten, and raped because of her involvement with a political opposition group was expelled to Haiti with her husband and baby, where they are now in hiding.”
- “Nicaraguan authorities detained a Nicaraguan political activist, her husband, and seven-year-old child for 11 days, interrogated, and beat the couple after CBP expelled the family along with approximately 200 other Nicaraguans in June 2020.”
- “Nine- and fourteen-year-old Honduran children were kidnapped with their asylum-seeking mother in Monterrey in March 2021 after CBP expelled them three times since December 2020.”
- “In February 2021, a Guatemalan woman who had been expelled by CBP to Mexicali after attempting to seek asylum was raped in Tijuana.”
- “CBP expelled a 15-year-old Guatemalan boy and his asylum-seeking mother to Ciudad Juárez where they had been kidnapped in February 2021. The woman told Human Rights First researchers that when she tried to explain the danger she faced, U.S. immigration officers told her that they didn’t care because ‘the president is not giving political asylum to anyone.’ CBP expelled the family to dangerous Ciudad Juárez at night during a snowstorm after they were held in CBP custody for days without food or water.”
- “At least 20 LGBTQ Jamaican asylum seekers are stranded in Mexico facing violence and discrimination, but they are too terrified to approach the U.S.-Mexico border to request protection for fear they will be immediately expelled to Jamaica where they would face continued persecution.”
The report also includes numerous outrageous accounts of Border Patrol agents’ casual cruelty and aggressive behavior toward migrant parents and children—so many that they could form a separate report.
The organizations highlight the painful trend of expelled families deciding to separate inside Mexico, sending children back across the border unaccompanied, where they might end up in immigration proceedings inside the United States, perhaps living with relatives. Mounting evidence points to these Title 42-induced family separations happening more often than we had imagined. Citing secondary sources, the report reads:
Litigation against Title 42 remains active in Washington, DC Circuit Court. On April 22 the ACLU agreed with the Biden administration on the latest of several extensions of a pause in its lawsuit against the expulsions policy. The court is set to resume on May 3.
Increases in migration appear to be flattening out
For migrant families who don’t get expelled, most U.S. border cities have a charity-run facility that provides a short-term place to sleep, food, clothing, and help with travel arrangements. “Respite centers” like Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley, Annunciation House in El Paso, Casa Alitas in Tucson, and the San Diego Rapid Response Network receive asylum-seeking migrants whom Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released from custody, usually with a notice to appear in immigration court.
The expulsion of so many families to Mexico has left these respite centers below capacity, even at a time when U.S. authorities are encountering large numbers. Annunciation House is taking in 30 to 35 migrants per day, even as one or two planeloads of 100-plus migrants each arrives in El Paso each day: the rest are expelled into Ciudad Juárez. Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities told Axios that her shelters in the Rio Grande Valley, the sector where 67 percent of family migrants were apprehended in March, are receiving 400 to 800 migrants, mostly families. That sounds like a lot, but she noted, “I haven’t seen the numbers as high as 2019.” That number, roughly extrapolated border-wide, points to only a minor increase, if any, over the number of family migrants encountered at the border in March.
Indeed, the rate of growth of family and child arrivals seems to have hit a pause in April. Weekly CBP apprehension data seen by WOLA points to Border Patrol’s “encounters” of family and unaccompanied child migrants receding slightly during the first half of April, after more than doubling from February to March. The percentage of families who are expelled into Mexico appears to remain in the 30-40 percent range (this number includes a small number of Mexican families). Encounters with single adults, well over 80 percent of whom are expelled, continue to rise, but at a slower pace than in March.
Daily Border Patrol data shows slightly more unaccompanied children arriving at the border this week, mildly reversing a trend of steady declines since late March. There is some good news, though: on April 21, for the first time since the current jump in child migrant encounters began, the number of unaccompanied children in U.S. government custody actually declined. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) discharged—placed with families or sponsors in the United States—more children (480) than Border Patrol newly apprehended at the border (419). On this chart, the green exceeded the blue for the first time:
A lull in April doesn’t necessarily mean that this spring’s increase in migration has flattened out for good. There is a pattern. Though spring is usually a time when migration jumps, Border Patrol migrant apprehension data for 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019 show small April increases sandwiched between larger increases in March and May. The May increases, though, were never larger in percentage terms than March.
As unaccompanied children don’t get expelled, the overall downward trend in child arrivals since late March can’t be ascribed to Title 42 serving as a “deterrent.” An increase in Mexico’s migrant interdiction operations could be contributing: Tonatiuh Guillen, a longtime Mexican migration expert who briefly headed the Interior Department’s National Migration Institute (INM), told the Wall Street Journal that “apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are likely to go down this month in part as a result of Mexico’s actions.” That hypothesis is difficult to prove at the moment, though.
Mexico sends troops and talks trees
The Failure to Protect report calls out Mexico’s government for acceding to the Biden administration’s requests to cooperate with the Title 42 expulsions, noting that doing so “continues to facilitate U.S. violations of international protections for refugees.”
Mexico has also deployed larger numbers of its new National Guard and regular armed forces along its northern and southern borders to interdict migrants. Near Guatemala, the Wall Street Journal reports citing Mexican officials, Mexico has deployed about 9,000 soldiers and guardsmen along with 150 immigration officers from the INM. The immigration agency has installed “dozens of checkpoints” along roads in the southern border states of Chiapas and Tabasco, where agents, accompanied by security forces, are pulling many undocumented Central Americans off of buses, then detaining and deporting them.
At Mexico’s northern border, guardsmen have been stationed at some sites where large numbers of families had been crossing the Rio Grande and awaiting Border Patrol apprehension on the riverbank south of the border wall. (One must be standing on U.S. soil in order to request asylum in the United States.)
Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News talked to some of the National Guard troops at a frequent crossing point in downtown Ciudad Juárez, where the Rio Grande is barely 10-15 feet wide and shallow, and the border wall looms dozens of yards away. One member of the National Guard estimated that crossings in that area had fallen 70 to 80 percent since his unit was deployed there. He doubted, though, that this has deterred asylum-seeking families.
“We’ve pushed them outside to desolate areas, out in the desert,” he said, conceding their efforts only put the migrants and their children in a more dangerous situation. “The desert doesn’t serve as a deterrence. They, women and children, cross in spite of the rattlesnakes, giant spiders, the hot sun. That’s what poverty does to you. The American dream is so alluring that you risk it all.”
The Failure to Protect report, meanwhile, recalls the human rights dangers associated with increased security-force deployments, which WOLA has documented in much past reporting. “Mexican police, immigration officials and other government authorities are directly involved in kidnappings, extortion and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants forcibly returned by DHS to Mexico,” it reads.
Mexico hasn’t yet reported its migrant apprehension and detention data from March. However, the Wall Street Journalobtained statistics pointing to a 32 percent jump in INM apprehensions of Central American migrants from February to March, to 15,800. U.S. apprehensions of migrants jumped 72 percent from February to March.
UNICEF said that the number of non-Mexican migrant children currently in Mexico grew from 380 in January to 3,500 at the end of March, with 275 minors entering the country every day—some coming from Central America, and some being expelled with parents from the United States. Children make up about 30 percent of the population in Mexico’s migrant shelters, the UN agency reported, and half of them traveled unaccompanied. “These children arrive after perilous journeys of up to two months, alone, exhausted and afraid,” said UNICEF director Henrietta Fore. According to the Mexican daily Milenio, “She explained that at every step they are at risk of violence and exploitation, gang recruitment and trafficking, which has tripled in the last 15 years.”
The INM reported that Mexico will be opening up 17 temporary shelters for child migrants in Chiapas and Tabasco, which will be run by the government’s child and family welfare agency (DIF).
Milenio found that an increasing number of families are migrating without making large payments to smugglers. Instead, more Central American parents with children are walking hundreds of miles and boarding cargo trains, an enormously risky journey. Migrants told the paper that Mexican authorities they encounter are less likely to detain them if they are traveling with children. “Hundreds of migrants believe that they have found in children a way to access certain benefits,” Milenio reports, but “the reality is that they expose them to bad weather, kidnapping, poor nutrition, disease, and the risk posed by La Bestia,” the notorious cargo trains.
This route is very dangerous. On April 20, two Honduran migrants were shot dead, and three more wounded, as they tried to flee a gang seeking to rob them along the railroad tracks, in broad daylight, in a rural zone of Tabasco state.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recorded an April 18 video from Palenque, Chiapas, a town along one of the main train routes. There, he laid out a proposal for cooperation with the United States to address Central American migration. Central American and Mexican migrants seeking to emigrate, he said, should work for three years in Mexico planting trees and other crops in a reforestation program his government calls Sembrando Vida(“sowing life”). Upon completion of this obligation, the United States should grant these migrants a six-month temporary work visa, along with the right to apply for U.S. citizenship.
López Obrador said he would present this plan, which he billed as an environmental initiative, during the April 22 Leaders Summit on Climate virtually hosted by President Joe Biden. U.S. officials did not appear interested in discussing the idea at the summit, however. In response to a question from the Mexican daily Reforma, an unnamed senior U.S. official stated, “This is not a conversation about migration but a conversation about climate change. We are not focused on the interplay of issues.” The official added, “We just recently heard [President López Obrador’s proposal] and it doesn’t sound like it has had a chance to be part of extensive discussions in Mexico or between Mexico and the United States.”
- Vice President Kamala Harris is to talk to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on April 26, and take part in a virtual roundtable with Guatemalan “community-based organizations” on April 27, Axios reports. She may visit Central America in June.
- The Washington Post and New York Times dig deep into President Biden’s awkward April 16 double about-face on the U.S. government’s annual refugee cap. Susan Gzesh of the University of Chicago points out at Just Security that “almost no Guatemalans, Hondurans, or Salvadorans have ever been welcomed to the United States through USRAP,” the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
- The Biden administration has ordered U.S. border and immigration agencies to stop using terms like “alien,” “illegal alien,” and “assimilation” in their communications.
- A group of senators from both parties met on April 21 to discuss how immigration reform legislation might move forward. According to The Hill, “the starting points” are a Republican demand for a “streamlined” asylum process at the border that would reduce the number of unaccompanied children allowed into the United States, and a Democratic demand that so-called “Dreamers” be given a path to citizenship. Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) led the meeting of four Democrats and four Republicans. At an April 20 meeting with Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, meanwhile, President Biden indicated he might favor allowing immigration reform legislation to go forward under “reconciliation,” Senate rules allowing budget-related bills to pass on a simple majority without a filibuster.
- The process of winding down the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, known as Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP, is proceeding slowly. As of the end of March, TRAC Immigration reports, 3,911 of 26,432 Remain in Mexico subjects with pending asylum cases had been allowed into the United States—or at least, had changed their venues away from MPP courts to normal immigration courts elsewhere in the country.
- Republican border-state governors are actively opposing any alteration of the Trump administration’s border and migration policies. Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, announced a $25 million deployment of his state’s National Guard to the border, although his state’s border sectors account for only 18 percent of Border Patrol’s migrant encounters since October. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, working in tandem with a legal group that former Trump advisor Stephen Miller is billing as the opposite of the ACLU, is suing to force the Biden administration to expel unaccompanied children under Title 42.
- At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux files a lengthy, multi-source report from Arizona and Sonora. It finds that the Biden administration’s persistent application of Title 42 expulsions “is making one of the deadliest stretches of the U.S.-Mexico divide more dangerous, endangering the people the president purports to support and enriching the illicit networks he purports to oppose.” Many expulsions are happening in the middle of the night.
- About 90 days after the White House launched a 60-day review of the future of Donald Trump’s border wall, “the wall’s future remains in limbo and the review continues” amid increasingly mixed messages, ABC News reports.
- A Vice investigation details how U.S. money-transfer companies profit from ransom payments wired to those who kidnap migrants in Mexico from their relatives in the United States.
- At Talking Points Memo, Tierney Sneed tells the story of how Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) got over its misgivings and embraced “We Build the Wall,” a private, donor-supported border wall-building project that, prosecutors allege, turned out to be riddled with fraud.
- The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shut down an emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant girls in Houston, after allegations of mistreatment, including telling the girls “to use plastic bags for toilets because there were not enough staff members to accompany them to restrooms.” The facility was run by a non-profit “with no prior experience housing unaccompanied migrant children,” ABC News reports.
- Border Patrol reported encountering a female Honduran migrant “incoherent and in medical distress” in south Texas on the evening of April 15, while with her adult daughter and two young children. The woman died at the McAllen, Texas hospital early the next morning.
Colombia Peace Update: April 24, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Attacks on indigenous communities intensify in Cauca
It was another bitter week in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, the most dangerous of Colombia’s 32 departments to be a social leader. Cauca is enticing to drug traffickers and armed groups because the Pan-American highway traverses it, it has an extensive Pacific coast, and the Colombian government is absent from most rural areas. Cauca has the largest indigenous population of all departments. The rural population—which is the majority of the department’s 1.5 million people, much of them Afro-descendant and indigenous—is both caught in the crossfire and more organized than counterparts in most regions of Colombia.
Many areas that had been under FARC influence before the 2016 peace accord are disputed between some of three or four FARC dissident groups, the ELN, and neo-paramilitary and organized crime bands. Violence has flared up in 2021. Just in the past week:
- On April 17 the Army killed 14 members of the “Carlos Patiño Front” dissident group in the rural part of Argelia municipality, in southern Cauca. One soldier died. Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro said that a column of troops was attacked. Fighting between this dissident group and the ELN has terrorized Argelia’s rural population all year, causing thousands to displace. The Carlos Patiño is aligned with the largest network of FARC dissidents, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.” It inexplicably still has an active Facebook page.
- On April 20, in the northern part of Cauca, assailants shot and killed Sandra Liliana Peña Chocue, the 34-year-old governor of the La Laguna Sibera indigenous reserve in Caldono municipality. Peña, a member of the Nasa nation who had led local efforts to eradicate coca plants, was killed as she rode her motorcycle in rural Caldono.
- Indigenous communities in northern Cauca, mainly within the framework of the Cauca National Indigenous Council (CRIC), quickly mobilized to demand respect for their territory and organizations, joining in a coca eradication effort to carry on Sandra Liliana Peña’s work. This, too, was attacked on April 22, as several assailants opened fire on the eradicators and members of the Indigenous Guard, an unarmed but very disciplined security force, in rural Caldono. The attack injured about 31 Indigenous people. The Indigenous Guard captured seven of the attackers and one of their vehicles. According to the CRIC, the eradication effort continuedafter the attack.
While the attackers were almost certainly FARC dissidents, the CRIC’s statement evidenced the community’s intense distrust of the national government and its armed forces:
Today we were outraged to hear in a TV newscast, General Marco Mayorga Niño, commander of the III Army Division, assuring that “it has been agreed to coordinate with the authorities the eradication of coca found in the area,” and “to dialogue with the Indigenous Guard about coordinating security activities in the reserves’ territories.“ None of this corresponds to the truth.
On March 26, the nearby municipality of Corinto had been rocked by a car bomb that went off just outside the mayor’s office in the center of town. (An earlier update covers this incident.) Like this week’s attacks in Caldono, the car bombing was probably carried out by the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, the most powerful FARC dissident group in this part of Cauca. Like the Carlos Patiño Front further south, the Dagoberto Ramos is linked to the Gentil Duarte network. A third dissident group, the Jaime Martínez (also active on Facebook), operates nearby and also appears to be part of the Gentil Duarte structure.
“After the peace agreement, there were several months of very significant calm, but after that it’s been changing and there has developed a much more complicated situation than before the accord,” Dionisio Rodriguez Paz of the Cococauca organization said during the presentation of a CINEP human rights report this week.
A report from several local human rights groups cited by El Espectador recalls that Cauca, with about 3 percent of Colombia’s population, concentrates 28 percent of its murders of social leaders, which increased by 40 percent in the department from 2019 to 2020. Of 271 leaders killed in Cauca since the peace accord’s 2016 signing, 50.9 percent were Indigenous leaders.
Foreign Minister’s comment at UN meeting generates outrage
Concerns about social leaders were a frequent topic of discussion among international diplomats at the UN Security Council’s quarterly meeting to review aspects of peace accord implementation, held virtually on April 21.
Ambassadors praised some aspects of implementation, like the enrollment of 50 percent of demobilized guerrillas in collective and individual productive projects, and several welcomed the government’s proposal to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission to include compliance with the post-conflict transitional justice system’s (JEP’s) sentences. But they echoed concerns about rising violence, especially in areas of former FARC influence. “It is urgent that the policies and measures taken by the State—including the recent Strategic Security Plan—translate into better results, especially in the 25 municipalities that concentrate most of this violence,” read the statement from the UN Verification Mission’s director, Carlos Ruiz Massieu.
A big point was the continued slaughter of demobilized FARC members. The JEP’s president, Eduardo Cifuentes, said on April 19 that at least 276 former guerrillas had been killed since the peace accord went into effect. The latest was Ever Castro, a former FARC medic shot to death in Meta department on April 18. Castro’s killing happened only four days after another former FARC member, Fayber Camilo Cufiño, was killed in the same zone. “Much of the country was committed to the peace process until they noticed that we’d surrendered our weapons; after we turned in our guns, they left us on our own,” lamented to El Espectador Alexa Rochi, a fellow ex-combatant and close friend of Castro.
The figure of 276 murders represents more than 1 out of every 50 of the 13,185 guerrillas who passed through the peace accords’ demobilization process. Colombia’s Constitutional Court is reportedly studying legal petitions (tutelas) seeking to declare that the government’s insufficient protection of ex-combatants has reached an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” a term in Colombian law that would require the executive branch to take emergency measures.
In this context, part of the Colombian government’s remarks before the Security Council, as read by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum, were especially disconcerting. “The existence of FARC dissident groups,” she told the UN body, “should be considered as an example of non-compliance, precisely, of the former guerrillas who are now converted into a political party.”
Dissident groups are led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the accord or who abandoned the demobilization process and rearmed—a common outcome in peace processes. Perhaps 10 percent of former FARC members have chosen this path. Many if not most of the new groups’ members are new recruits with no prior FARC membership.
That the former FARC political party is somehow coordinating with the dissidents, perhaps using them as a “Plan B,” is an occasional talking point on Colombia’s right. (A few years ago, WOLA staff were surprised to hear it from a Trump administration official.) Blum appeared to be reinforcing this unfounded theory, further endangering the large majority of ex-guerrillas who have given up arms—a population already facing serious threat.
The “Plan B” theory is especially bizarre when one recalls that the dissidents are among the most frequent killers of their former comrades who demobilized. Estimates ranging from about 44 to 49 percent of ex-FARC killings were carried out by dissident groups. How then, could the demobilized guerrillas be responsible—using the Foreign Minister’s logic—for the existence of the same groups that are killing them?
La Silla Vacía pointed out another serious misstatement in Blum’s comments before the UN. “So far in 2021,” she said, “the total number of victimizations has fallen 51 percent compared to the same period of last year.” The online investigative site recalled that killings dropped by only 10 percent, from 20 during the first 3 months of 2020 to 18 during the first 3 months of 2021.
Expressions of disagreement with Blum’s comments came quickly.
- “For the United Nations it is very clear first to distinguish between the dissidents who have never been part of the process, those who were part of the process and unjustifiably left it, and the 90 percent who remain in the process and have been fulfilling their obligations,” said UN mission chief Ruiz Massieu. “For us this distinction is very clear.”
- “I reject the statements made by Foreign Minister Blum,” tweeted the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño. “Her speech is untrue and puts a target on the heads of the thousands of signatories of the Peace Accord who are committed to the fulfillment of what was agreed, despite the permanent non-compliance of this government.” Londoño went on to call for Blum’s resignation.
- “That the government would say this makes those who are killing us feel authorized to attack us,” said ex-FARC senator Julián Gallo.
- “I protest the statements made by the Foreign Minister,” tweeted Humberto de la Calle, who was the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the 2012-16 FARC talks. “She puts at risk the lives of former combatants who laid down their arms. It is the negation of the accord. It is a provocation. I demand retraction.”
In an April 22 tweet, the Colombian Presidency official most in charge of peace accord implementation, Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, raised eyebrows with a tweet thread that appeared to contradict the Foreign Minister’s UN comments. The dissidents “are the ones who have to answer individually, and this is not a responsibility that belongs to the Comunes party,” he wrote, tagging Londoño. Later that day, Archila’s office and the Foreign Ministry issued a joint statement that at least partially walked back Blum’s much-derided words at the UN:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Counselor’s Office emphasize that Colombia’s [UN] statement emphatically recognizes and reiterates the National Government’s support for the reincorporation process of the former combatants committed to the process, in its multiple political, economic, and social dimensions, and its commitment to their security and protection, and those of the members of the political party that emerged from it.
Fumigation edges closer to approval
In August 2018, Iván Duque assumed Colombia’s presidency vowing to restart a U.S.-backed program to eradicate coca by spraying a controversial herbicide, glyphosate, from aircraft. Thirty-two months later, this “fumigation” program is very close to restarting. “It seems like the return of illicit crop fumigation using glyphosate is imminent,” noted Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group at Razón Pública. “There is a high probability that in 2021 we will see the planes take off for the coca-growing areas,” wrote Juan Carlos Garzón and Ana María Rueda of the Ideas for Peace Foundation. As we noted in last week’s update, sources in Colombia’s presidency predicted to La Silla Vacía that aerial spraying could restart in June.
Following a World Health Organization study determining that glyphosate could be carcinogenic, Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years in which police and U.S. contractor-piloted planes sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) in an effort to kill coca. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out several criteria that would have to be met before any eventual restart of the spray program. (Those are laid out in last week’s update.) With a decree, an environmental finding, and a health study, Colombia’s government claims to have met these criteria.
The only step that remains is for the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government, to meet and ratify the program’s restart. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen with few obstacles. “The most likely scenario,” write Garzón and Rueda, “is that in 2021 spraying will begin in a dozen municipalities—in one of the six ‘nuclei’ for which the Anla [Colombia’s National Environmental Licensing Agency] has already given authorization.”
The main remaining potential obstacle to a renewed fumigation program is a Constitutional Court review of a legal complaint (tutela) filed by several Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Court has indicated it will hand down a decision in about a month.
The communities argue that they were not given an opportunity to participate in prior informed consultation on one of the Court’s required steps, the determination of environmental risk. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government sought to hold these consultations virtually over the internet. But most of the affected ethnic communities are in remote areas without broadband signal, if any.
As it weighs the evidence, the Constitutional Court has sent lists of tough questions to the Anla and the National Police. If the Court decides that barely accessible virtual meetings fail to meet its criteria, then the fumigation program’s restart will be substantially delayed. If the Court gives the program a green light, the “June” timetable mentioned above is likely.
If that happens, Garzón and Rueda predict that protests will quickly follow (though a recent La Silla Vacía reportcontended that coca-growers’ organizations are much weakened):
The photo of the [first] plane spraying will cause tensions and mobilizations that have already been anticipated. Beyond the discussion of whether the communities’ resistance is organic, spontaneous, or pressured by armed groups, this will be a difficult situation for the government to handle in a context of high social discontent that has been accumulating throughout the pandemic. This could be the spark that triggers and coheres protests and blockades.
Opposition to fumigation, on public health, environmental, and “bad drug policy” grounds, continues to mount. 39 NGOs sent a letter to the Constitutional Court asking the justices to rule in favor of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant complainants and suspend the spray program. A petition on change.org, meanwhile, is nearing 35,000 signatures.
- WOLA’s “Con Líderes Hay Paz” campaign hosted an event featuring stirring testimonies from prominent social leaders from Chocó, Buenaventura, Cali, and Córdoba.
- Colombian Army Colonel Pedro Pérez has gone missing in Saravena, Arauca, a town along the Venezuelan border with a long history of ELN influence. He was last seen, off duty, leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman on April 17. In another strange story, Semana revealed that another member of the Army, Sergeant Antonio Misse, may have been taken by Venezuelan forces while off duty on the Colombian side of the border near Cúcuta in December, and remains in Venezuelan custody.
- About 5,877 Venezuelans displaced by fighting between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group remain in 58 “informal reception points” in Arauca as of April 15, UNHCR reports. Though fighting has died down, very few have felt safe to return. A La Silla Vacía analysis contends that the ELN, which has strong influence over this zone of Arauca and Apure, Venezuela but has stayed to the margins of the latest fighting, is emerging as “the big winner.”
- The Jesuit think tank CINEP released a flurry of publications this week. The 62nd edition of Noche y Niebla, a publication synthesizing results of the group’s extensive conflict database, counts 846 victims of “social-political violence” in 2020, with 300 of them in Cauca. CINEP also published the latest edition of its long-running Cien Días political analysis magazine, and a five–part series in El Espectador about the ELN, drawn from a recently published book.
- Two police officers were shot and killed, probably by FARC dissidents, in the town center of Puerto Rico, Caquetá.
- The Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP), charged with providing security for prominent ex-guerrillas, is limiting their domestic travel. Comunes (ex-FARC) party Senator Julián Gallo had to go to court to get the UNP to provide security, as agreed in the peace accord, so he could carry out party business outside Bogotá. The judge who considered his case determined that the UNP had “placed in danger” the former FARC leader. On April 20 former FARC members of the Commission to Search for People Believed to be Disappeared, a body created by the peace accord, denounced that they are unable to do their work because the UNP is refusing to send bodyguards to accompany them on many of their missions.
- A bill seeking to legalize and regulate production, processing, and distribution of coca leaf passed its first step, gaining approval of a Colombian Senate committee. Members of the governing Centro Democrático party boycotted the 12-0 vote. By an 8-5 vote, a different Senate committee rejected a bill that would have prohibited aerial fumigation of coca with glyphosate.
- Journalist Jeremy McDermott of the investigative website InsightCrime is being sued for libel—a criminal charge in Colombia, potentially involving prison and steep fines—for a meticulously documented 2020 series showing that a Colombian businessman living in Spain is, in fact, a paramilitary-tied narcotrafficker. McDermott made a strong case that Guillermo Acevedo is a shadowy criminal warlord known as “Memo Fantasma”; Acevedo is pressing charges.
- VICE has produced a seven-episode podcast about the case of Drummond Coal, an Alabama-based mining company with large investments in Colombia, whose managers in Cesar stand accused of working with paramilitary groups to put down a unionization effort 20 years ago.
- Basing his 150-page analysis on 50 interviews with specialists and advocates, Mariano Aguirre unpacks the many causes of Colombia’s massive late-2019 social protests, and offers insight into how donor nations should shift their priorities. Lots of insight here into Colombia’s current challenges.
- An investigation by La Silla Vacía takes down the Chief Prosecutor’s Office’s (Fiscalía’s) tendency to rely on the term “clarifications” (esclarecimientos) when reporting its results, especially results for its efforts to bring to justice the killers of social leaders and ex-combatants. The term, which indicates that prosecutors have at least identified suspects, “adds up so many categories of judicial events—including several that do not provide the truth about who committed the crimes—that, in the end, it clarifies little about the progress of justice.”
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, April 26
- 4:00-5:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Latin America & the Global Cold War (RSVP required).
- 4:30-5:30 at as-coa.org: A Conversation with Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (RSVP required).
Tuesday, April 27
- 11:30-12:30 at IRI Eventbrite: What’s Next for Perú? Analysis of the April 11 Elections and Beyond (RSVP required).
- 12:00-1:30 at brookings.edu: The Biden administration’s drug policy strategy and lessons from Portugal(RSVP required).
- 2:00 at homeland.house.gov: Hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, & Operations: Unaccompanied Children at the Border: Stakeholder Perspectives on the way Forward.
- 2:00-4:00 at thedialogue.org: How Do We Support Students and Their Teachers in the Reopening of Schools? The Role of Diagnostic Learning Evaluations (RSVP required).
- 5:00-6:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Beyond the headlines: Central American migrant’s human journey (RSVP required).
Wednesday, April 28
- 10:00-11:30 at Fundación Ideas para la Paz Facebook: ¿Cómo contribuye el sector empresarial al respeto de los DDHH de la población migrante? (RSVP required).
- 2:15 at judiciary.house.gov: Hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship: Why Dont They Just Get in Line? Barriers to Legal Immigration.
- 2:30 at hsgac.senate.gov: Hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management: The Non-Governmental Organization Perspective on the Southwest Border.
Thursday, April 29
- 10:00-11:30 at thedialogue.org: Energy Transition in Latin America – The Role of the Private Sector (RSVP required).
- 2:00-3:30 at brookings.edu: The future of immigration policy in the United States (RSVP required).
- 3:00-5:00 at CEJIL Zoom: ¿Hacía dónde va la CIDH? (RSVP required).
- 4:00-5:00 at iamericas.org: Renewing U.S. Hemispheric Engagement in a Changing World, a Keynote Address by Governor Bill Richardson (RSVP required).
Friday, April 30
- 11:30 at Florida International University Zoom: The Policy Challenges of Central American Migration: The Human Rights Perspective (RSVP required).