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Friday, February 28, 2014

The Week in Review

This week, the world's most wanted drug trafficker was captured in a joint U.S.-Mexico military operation, U.S. Southern Command said it didn't have enough money to interdict the majority of drugs at sea, robots started patrolling drug tunnels at the border and Venezuela announced a new ambassador to the United States. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • On Thursday the State Department released its “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013” The Colombian government was particularly upset by the report, which cited impunity and inefficiency in the justice system as principle human rights infractions in the country. Vice President Angelino Garzón responded by saying the report was an “intrusion” into Colombia’s internal politics and that the United States had no place to preach about human rights given its maintenance of the Guantánamo Bay prison facility.

    Some other topics touched on in the report include Mexico’s negligence in accounting for thousands of “disappeared” citizens, extrajudicial killings by security forces in El Salvador, and rampant corruption in government institutions and security forces in Honduras and Guatemala. For Politico, Dana Frank examined the United States’ continued to security relationship with Honduras despite these abuses and current President Juan Orlando Hernández’s own shady past.

  • The heads of U.S. Southern Command and Northern Command (Mexico and the Bahamas fall under its purview) gave their posture statements at a hearing before the House’s Armed Services Committee. Northcom commander General Jacoby underscored that the U.S.-Mexico security relationship remains closer than ever despite recent grumblings suggesting a distancing, pointing to the recent capture of Mexican drug trafficker “El Chapo” Guzmán in a joint military operation as evidence. General Jacoby’s posture statement can be read here (PDF).
  • Among several other topics, Southcom commander General Kelly discussed the effect of budget cuts, claiming he now watches 74 percent of cocaine passing through Honduras’ maritime corridor go by due to insufficient vessels and equipment. He touched on human rights vetting and noted his ever-growing concern over shifts in the drug trade towards the Caribbean. The video can be watched here and General Kelly’s posture statement can be read here(PDF).
  • The Associated Press reported on budget cuts to the Coast Guard, despite an increase in maritime trafficking routes. The article noted, “While security has tightened at the U.S. border, drug smugglers are increasingly turning to the high seas.” InSight Crime argued this indicates a politicization in funding for the drug war. An example of this increased border funding can be seen in the recent deployment of remote control robots to patrol tunnels used to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • In another hearing this week, “The Posture of the U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Transportation Command,” Colombia was heralded as a military and human rights success story, particularly given that it is now training other countries’ security forces.
  • Colombia's military will soon send "senior officials from the Army specialized in education, training and protocols” to help train national police officers in Guatemala, reported U.S.-Southern Command-sponsored news site InfoSur Hoy.
  • Colombia’s Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón was in Washington D.C. this week for a series of meetings with top U.S. officials, including “High-Level Partnership DialogueSemana published part of a leaked copy of his agenda, noting that he would ask for continued U.S. support in programs like aerial fumigation and other counternarcotics operations.

    While in town Pinzón gave a talk at Center for American Progress where he “laid out an extremely expansive vision of the role of the armed forces post-peace accord, ranging from border security to confronting drug trafficking, transnational crime and continued armed violence in an accord’s aftermath; and from addressing climate change to expanding the military’s role in development,” according to Lisa Haugaard, director of Latin America Working Group. He also strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, some of which is done with U.S.-funding. See here for concerns about Colombia’s exportation of training.

  • There were two informative English-language explainers this week about the amassing corruption scandals rocking the Colombian military, one from Reuters and the other from the Latin American Working Group. The latter noted that the Army's new commander, General Juan Pablo Rodriguez, oversaw a unit implicated in the false positive scandal.
  • Brazil and the European Union approved an undersea communication cable with the stated purpose of reducing dependency on U.S. fiber optic cables and to “guarantee the neutrality of the internet,” protecting Brazil Internet users from U.S. surveillance.
  • An article in Foreign Policy questioned the Pentagon’s support for Suriname’s government, given President Desi Bouterse has been convicted of drug trafficking in the Netherlands and is accused of maintaining links to traffickers currently. His son, Dino Bouterse, was arrested by the DEA and extradited to the United States after he stuck a deal with “Mexican smugglers” (undercover DEA agents) to allow “Hezbollah militants” to train in Suriname. See Just the Facts’ Suriname country page for more information on security assistance to the country.
  • The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday it had given three Venezuelan diplomats 48 hours to exit the country in response to last week’s expulsion of three U.S. consular officials in Venezuela. That same day, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced he would be appointing an ambassador the United States. Though Venezuela and the United States have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 they have maintained embassies. See here for more detailed information on Maximilien Sánchez Arveláiz, the new Venezuelan ambassador to the United States.
  • As the protests continue to rage throughout Venezuela, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sponsored a resolution “asking the administration to study and consider putting in place strong individual sanctions against individuals in the Venezuelan government who hold assets, property and travel visas to the U.S.”
  • The Congressional Research Service published a new report: “Gangs in Central America.”
  • “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most wanted drug trafficker, was captured this weekend in a joint U.S.-Mexico military operation. While Guzmán’s capture was a huge win for the Mexican and United States governments, the general consensus is that it will have little impact on the drug trade while another leader in the Sinaloa cartel will step up to fill his role. Several analysts weighed in on what comes next for narcotrafficking in Mexico -- particularly InSight Crime, which posted a series of good analysis on what his capture means. See our Mexico news page for links to these articles.

    According to reports, the United States’ main contribution was providing intelligence and technology leading up to the capture, while the Mexican Navy, the United States’ main security partner in Mexico, carried out the final capture. Although several indictments have been filed in cities throughout the United States, it is unlikely that Guzmán will get extradited any time soon as lawmakers want him to first face justice in Mexico. President Peña Nieto said he extradition would be possible later. On Thursday the U.S. Treasury Department placed Kingpin Act sanctions against the financial networks of several of Guzmán’s associates. Prensa Libre published a timeline of OFAC sanctions on the Sinaloa Cartel from 2007-2014.

  • Monday, April 1, 2013

    Week in Review - Monday Edition

    The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region over the past week.


  • Peace talks between the FARC and Colombian government, scheduled to restart April 2, have been postponed until the end of the month. Both sides are reportedly working on their respective proposals for land reform, the first agenda item of the six points that the talks will address.
  • President Santos President Santos said the Urabeños drug gang was the only neoparamilitary criminal organization (known in Colombia as BACRIMS, for “bandas criminales”) with a national presence. According to Santos, other such groups like the Rastrojos are losing traction. In March, Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris published a report citing BACRIMS as the central threat to Colombian security, recording their presence in 209 of the country’s 337 municipalities. While President Santos attributed the diminished presence of several groups to security forces, it may more likely be the result of consolidation of smaller groups into stronger organizations, as pointed out by InSight Crime.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense reported that the FARC had shoulder-fired air-to-surface missiles. According to the article, “Defense experts say the FARC has long sought to acquire such weapons to counter a key strategic advantage of Colombia's military -- air superiority.” The Colombian government has had the most success against the FARC with its air strikes. As noted in the above-mentioned Nuevo Arco Iris report, in 2012, 15 aerial operations by the government killed 200 guerillas.

    Several analysts said that should the group acquire enough missiles, it could change the war. "If they had a few dozen, it would make a difference: It could limit what the Colombians could do against them from the air," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "My guess is they don't have that many." The article also notes that U.S. military assistance to Colombia for 2013 is slated to be $266 million.

  • The FARC issued a statement saying they would reject any proposal for peace that includes jail time for guerilla leaders. The Colombian government already has legislation in place that limits the prosecution of FARC members, but does not provide for total amnesty.
  • Peru

  • Peru and the United States have agreed to enhance political-military cooperation.
    The State Department’s press release can be read here, but notes the two countries will collaborate on various security issues like terrorism and drug trafficking. A good article in El País touches on how the agreement to share information, technology and training benefits both sides, and particularly Peru, which has seen an uptick in drug trafficking and coca production in its VRAEM region (the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, and the Mantaro Valley).
  • In May, Peru will begin drafting men between the ages of 18 and 25 for military service to help fill the reported 30,000-member deficit in the armed forces. Parents and university students will be exempt while draftees can pay a fine of $700 to get out of service. The measure has drawn much criticism, as opponents say it favors the wealthy. CNN pointed out that “Nearly a third of Peru's population lives below the poverty line, according to government statistics. A minimum wage salary is 750 soles ($290) per month."

    As InSight Crime notes, Peru has begun to more heavily “militarize the fight against drug traffickers and Shining Path guerillas,” particularly in the country’s largest coca-producing region, the VRAEM. In October, the government announced it would increase military and police budgets by 20 percent and double its police force.

  • Peru is reportedly purchasing 24 Russian Mi-171 helicopters for $407 million for counternarcotics operations in the country. According to reports, the deal could rise to a value of $485.5 million as Peru has supposedly signaled it wants to buy additional onboard weapons and Russia has offered to train Peruvian pilots.
  • Mexico and the border

  • A group of four U.S. senators working on the immigration bill toured the U.S.- Mexico border last Wednesday. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) concluded his visit by saying, “What I learned was that we have adequate manpower, but we don’t have adequate technology.” The senators are part of the “gang of eight,” the bipartisan group developing legislation to reform U.S. immigration laws.
  • According to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), four out of five drug busts made by Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border involve U.S. citizens. The report’s authors recognize that Mexican cartels are controlling the smuggling trade but note, “the public message that the Border Patrol has trumpeted for much of the last decade, mainly through press releases about its seizures, has emphasized Mexican drug couriers, or mules, as those largely responsible for transporting drugs.”
  • The Associated Press has since come out with a report which claims Mexican drug cartels are running drug distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast.
  • The White House announced President Obama will visit Mexico and Costa Rica May 2-4. In Mexico, he will meet with President Peña Nieto to discuss border security, trade and immigration, among other topics like education. In Costa Rica, he will meet with President Chinchilla and other leaders of the Central American Integration System (SICA) to discuss trade and security.
  • Mexican news website Animal Politico outlines five key components of Mexico’s revised draft of its victims law. The new language includes a definition for “indirect victims” as well as punishment for negligence by authorities. The law has been approved by the Mexican Senate, but still awaits full congressional approval.
  • Russia in Nicaragua

  • William Brownfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement says the United States welcomes Russia’s recent involvement in Central America’s drug war and collaboration with Nicaraguan forces to combat narcotics trafficking. The Nicaragua Dispatch reported Brownfield as saying, “I welcome any contribution, any donation and any support that the Russian government wants to give in this hemisphere.” According to the paper, Russia's drug czar Victor Ivanov says his plan is to convert Nicaragua into a regional stronghold for Central America’s drug war.

    In the interview Brownfield also discussed U.S. counternarcotics strategies in Central America, noting he hopes to shift routes away from the region within two to three years.

  • Honduras

  • United States officials claims that no security assistance is given to police units under the control of the country’s national police director, Juan Carlos Bonilla, over concerns that he was involved in extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The Associated Press published a must-read article last week challenging this, alleging that all police units are under Bonilla’s control. The U.S. has denied these claims saying that while it does support Honduran police, it does not support its director and gives no assistance to Bonilla or those directly under him. For more information, see a Just the Facts post published Friday.
  • Venezuela

  • The campaign ahead of Venezuela’s April 14 presidential election continues to be mired in personal and fiery insults between the two candidates, interim President Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles. According to Reuters, over the weekend Maduro “called the country's opposition ‘heirs of Hitler,’ accusing them of persecuting Cuban doctors working in the South American country the way Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany.” This comes after he accused Capriles of trying to “provoke” violence when plans were announced that he would be campaigning in the same western Venezuela state as Maduro this week. Capriles has since announced that he will start his campaign in the state of Monagas state on Tuesday, and move into Barinas on Wednesday.
  • Chile

  • Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile and announced she will be running for president in the country’s November elections. The Pan-American Post has a good overview of her announcement and links to several articles outlining the challenges facing her despite being the favored candidate. The post highlights Bachelet’s speech in which she said, “the main goal of her administration would be addressing income inequality in Chile, which in 2011 had the most uneven distribution of wealth of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country.”
  • Friday, February 1, 2013

    Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region this week.

    United States: Immigration bill

  • On Monday, a group of U.S. senators released a proposal for immigration reform. The White House released its proposal on Tuesday. Both said more drones will be needed to secure the border. As Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America noted about each of the proposals, “The Senate barely mentions building capacity at ports of entry, but has a lot to say about Border Patrol and drones. The White House doesn’t mention furthering the buildup of Border Patrol, which has already doubled in size since 2005 and quintupled since 1993, but it does talk about ports of entry. And it mentions ‘the use of technologies’ — most likely drones. Conclusion: there will be drones.”
  • A Washington Post op-ed highlights three ways U.S. immigration reform might impact Mexico.
  • Also on the issue of the border, the Associated Press obtained Border Patrol data showing that, nationwide, arrests by the Border Patrol increased about 7 percent, from 340,252 in fiscal year 2011 to 364,768 last year. This is the first time this number has increased since 2005.
  • Last week we highlighted the Washington Office on Latin America’s recent report on the Mexico-Texas border. This week, analysts looked into the report: Joshua Keating on the Foreign Policy blog highlighted four points from are important to keep in mind when considering immigration reform, while Insight Crime's Elyssa Pachico analyzed the report's finding that the Zetas' control of the US-Mexico border is slipping. Pachico concluded, "If the Zetas continue to lose power and influence along the US-Mexico border, it will likely make migrants' journey even more dangerous and unpredictable."
  • Obama Administration Changeovers

  • On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed President Obama's nomination of Senator John Kerry to be Secretary of State. See previous Just the Facts posts for what Kerry's appointment means for Latin America and what he said with regards to Latin America during his Senate confirmation hearing.
  • Current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her final speech in the post during a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. She underscored the need for immigration reform, but also highlighted the "need to do more on border security and internal security in Central America." The Council on Foreign Relation's website has the entire text of the speech.
  • Colombian Peace Process

  • Last weekend, the FARC captured two policemen in southwest Colombia. The rebel group declared the officers as "prisoners of war," justifying the action in a statement released Tuesday that read: "We reserve the right to capture, as prisoners, members of the security forces who have surrendered in combat. They are called PRISONERS OF WAR, and this phenomenon occurs in any conflict in the world."

    The Colombian Government's lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle reiterated that the government regards the officers’ detention as a kidnapping and questioned the FARC's commitment to the peace process, saying, "We’re going to Havana to end the conflict, which is what we agreed. And if that’s not the case, then they should say so now, so as not to waste the time of the government and the Colombian people."

  • La Silla Vacia reported on the FARC's continued recruitment of minors, even as the peace talks are underway.
  • On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the Colombian Government would want the United States to give more aid money to the country to reintegrate FARC combatants into society in the event of a peace deal.
  • Adam Isacson's Latin America blog provides an updated timeline for the peace talks, while his post on Just the Facts provides a longer- form update.
  • The Latin American Working Group Education Fund’s Director Lisa Haugaard also published a post on the talks about the involvement of Colombian civil society's involvement in the peace process.
  • Newspaper El Tiempo reported that 690 Colombians were reported missing in the first 28 days of 2013. In January 2011 there were 746 reported cases.
  • Guatemala: Rios Montt trial
    On Monday, a judge ruled that former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt will stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity for the killing and displacement of thousands of Guatemalans in 1982-1983, the majority of them Maya indigenous. The trial is a landmark for both Guatemala, where impunity for civil war crimes is high, as well as the region, as Rios Montt will be the first former head of state to be tried for genocide by a Latin American court.

    Pemex explosion
    An explosion Thursday afternoon at the Pemex oil company headquarters in Mexico City has killed 33 people and wounded more than 120. The cause of the blast is still unknown. The explosion comes as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto attempts to attract outside investment into the company. Peña Nieto has also said reforming the company is one of his top priorities, because, as Reuters notes, "Pemex, a symbol of Mexican self-sufficiency as well as a byword in Mexico for security glitches, oil theft and frequent accidents, has been hamstrung by inefficiency, union corruption and a series of safety failures costing hundreds of lives." Mexican news website Animal Politico has a graphic timeline of events and an excellent photo gallery on the aftermath in Mexico City, as does the Guardian.

    Venezuelan prison riot
    Venezuela has one of the most dangerous and corrupt prison systems in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, "Overcrowding, substandard conditions, a high number of pretrial detainees, and corrupt guards who traffic weapons and drugs to inmates have been persistent problems in Venezuelan prisons for years." As David Smilde from the Washington Office on Latin America notes on his Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights Blog, "prison mafias run lucrative crime networks and stockpile arms."

    The failed state of the country's penitentiary system was highlighted this week when the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory released a report revealing that 591 inmates were killed and 1,132 injured in the country's jails in 2012. The report was released nearly a week after a prison riot in western Venezuela left at least 56 dead.Human Rights Watch released a statement February 1 calling for the Venezuelan Government to investigate the deaths. "The casualty figures raise serious concerns that the use of lethal force at Uribana prison was far out of proportion with the need," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

    Friday, January 25, 2013

    Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of news highlights from around the region this week.

  • John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, had his confirmation hearing Thursday. During the hearing he touched on issues concerning Latin America, particularly with regards to Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. According to Kerry, Colombia is “an example for the rest of Latin America of what awaits them if we can induce people to make a better set of choices, frankly.”

    Hillary Clinton also heralded Colombia this week, calling the country’s second-largest city a “model” for security when requesting that Congress allocate sufficient security funds to countries that experienced the “Arab Spring.” According to Clinton, the U.S. should “help these countries like it helped Colombia, where the advances are evident.” On his blog, Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America looks at Medellín’s security efforts in the past decade and warns, “there’s a lot in Medellín’s recent past that Arab democracies would do well not to emulate.”

  • Christopher Sabitini from the Americas Society/Council of the Americas published an opinion piece on Fox News Latino about what Latin America can expect from the next secretary of state. See here for a recent Just the Facts post on the topic.
  • There was a fair amount of official U.S. military travel to the region recently:

  • The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert spent last week in Brazil "where he spoke with naval leadership, toured multiple navy and marine corps bases, and expanded maritime partnership opportunities," according to a U.S. Southern Command press release.
  • General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Peru meeting with President Ollanta Humala, Vice Minister of Defense Mario Sanchez, and Peruvian Chief of Defense Admiral Jose Cueto to discuss “shared security concerns and cooperation.”
  • U.S. Army South’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Frederick S. Rudesheim, spent several days in Colombia to enhance security cooperation between the two armies and “strengthen personal relationships.”
  • Drug reform

  • The debate on drug legalization hit headlines this week as Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a lead champion of drug reform in the region, sparked discussion Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, as he had previously pledged to do. President Molina called for alternative, more science-based approaches to regulate drugs, saying, “Prohibition, this war on drugs, has seen cartels grow, and the results are not what we looked for.” Molina also claimed drug reform would cut violence in Guatemala in half. He was joined by liberal activist/philanthropist George Soros, who echoed Molina, noting, “incarceration is hugely expensive…, the cost of alternatives is smaller than the cost of incarceration.”
  • On Wednesday, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who also attended the World Economic Forum, told the Associated Press that Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia have opened talks with U.S. officials to prepare for the legalization of marijuana in some U.S. states. On Thursday, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia told a diplomatic corps in Bogotá that Colombia "reaffirms its commitment to fight, as we have been fighting, with more costs but also with more effort and more results than any other country in the world against drug trafficking and its ramifications." However, he continued, noting that "that commitment and these results give us the moral stature to insist on the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the so-called 'War on Drugs' which started more than four decades ago and has not achieved its objectives."
  • Colombia

  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released three proposals for land redistribution and rural development this week, all of which can be found on the group's peace process blog. The proposals included alternatives to illicit crop production as well as the development of a national fund for land redistribution. This would give land appropriated by drug traffickers and armed groups to small farmers and marginalized groups, particularly women. According to news website Colombia Reports, “The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, agreed that an 'overlap' existed between the two sides in their desires to "transform" the rural countryside, but said that "significant differences remain." Round three of the talks concluded Thursday, with no major advances reported, according to Reuters. They are set to start again on January 31 in Havana.
  • Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacia examines the FARC’s proposal to legalize coca cultivation in the country and offers six reasons why it makes sense.
  • Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris posted an exclusive interview between the FARC’s supreme leader Timochenko and newspaper The Voz. It was the first time the leader has talked about the peace process since the talks began.
  • Colombia’s National Liberation Army, the country’s second largest rebel group, kidnapped five foreign mining employees in the Bolivar department on Tuesday, claiming they were “defending natural resources.” However, the move could be motivated by the Colombian government’s decision to exclude the ELN from the current peace talks, despite the rebels' demonstrated interest in participating. The group has made several indications they are interested in joining the process, including sending a delegation to Cuba that the government rebuffed.

    As reported in The Economist, "disgruntled that it has been excluded from the negotiations, which began in November, the ELN has launched a new campaign of attacks to establish its relevance." The day of the kidnapping, the group posted a video with its leader, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, asking, “Why aren’t we at the table? That’s a question for President Santos.”

  • The newspaper El Heraldo profiled the contentious security situation in the Bolivar department, where the kidnapping took place, saying the region was “in the middle of a war over gold and drugs.”
  • A Colombian poll showed that 40% of the country would reelect current President Juan Manuel Santos in 2014, which is 30.5% over his closest rival, Antonio Navarro Wolff, who would have 9.5% of the vote.
  • Honduras

  • Honduras still has the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations. The country hit a record year for murders in 2012 registering 7,172 killings, 68 more than were registered in 2011. The homicide rate of 85.5 per 100,000 in 2012 actually dropped from 86.5 in 2011 despite the increase in murders due to increases in population. As reported in newspaper La Prensa, there have been 20, 515 homicides in the past three years in the country.
  • Honduras continues to be in the middle of an extended institutional crisis. An article in Upside Down World this week provides a good analysis of the current situation in the country, noting that, "ever since the Honduran Congress flexed its muscles in June 2009, removing the president and demonstrating that the Supreme Court was its tool and not an independent branch of government, Honduras has been living with a legislature that appears to recognize no boundaries to its ambitions."

    A piece by Southern Pulse supported this, determining that “in 2013, Honduras is headed down the same road that led to the 2009 political crisis. Crime and inflation are up, foreign investment is down, the government’s finances are in disarray, and the president is talking about polling the Honduran people to see if they want constitutional changes that could jeopardize the 2013 general elections.”

    An Associated Press article published on Thursday titled,"Honduran government in chaos, can't pay its bills, neglects basic services," underscores the severity of the financial crisis facing the country. The article notes that the country's foreign debt -- $5 billion -- is equal to last year's entire government budget. "Soldiers aren't receiving their regular salaries, while the education secretary says 96 percent of schools close several days every week or month because of teacher strikes." But, as the piece highlights, "the financial problems add to a general sense that Honduras is a country in meltdown, as homicides soar, drug trafficking overruns cities and coasts and the nation’s highest court has been embattled in a constitutional fight with the Congress."

    As political analyst James Bosworth surmises, “The Honduran leadership is inventing its own rules rather than following the constitution, and that mindset is linked to the previous breakdown of the institutions in the 2009 constitutional crisis and coup.”

  • Mexico

  • Federal and state authorities launched a special operation in Mexico State this Friday in response to a sharp increase in violence in the region. Mexican news website Animal Político reports that in the past 24 days, 66 people have been murdered in Mexico State, which has remained relatively untouched by drug war related violence. January 14 has been the most violent day to date this month, with authorities finding 15 bodies in the towns of Toluca, Zinacantepec, Santiago Tianguistenco, Lerma y Ocuilan.

    According to Insight Crime, “Officials blame a war between the Familia Michoacana and an alliance formed by two breakaway groups: Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, and a recently formed gang called Guerreros Unidos. Smaller cells of the Zetas may also be in the mix. ” The article provides excellent information and analysis on the dynamics between criminal organizations operating in the region.

  • The Miami Herald reports that locals in at least a dozen rural towns in Mexico have created self-defense vigilante groups to defend themselves against the drug cartels. As one rights activist stated, “the situation Mexico is experiencing, the crime, is what has given the communities the legitimacy to say, ‘We will assume the tasks that the government has not been able to fulfill.’"
  • In northern Mexico, 91 of the 158 police officers from the towns of Gómez Palacio and Lerdo who were detained over alleged links to criminal groups two weeks ago, have resigned, reported Mexican news website Animal Político. The military and Federal police are currently handling security in the area.
  • Mexico’s electoral commission decided not to fine the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over allegations that the party bought votes in July to secure current president and PRI member Enrique Peña Nieto’s election into office.
  • Some reports on Mexico were released recently:

  • Luis Rubio, chairman of the Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo, A.C. (CIDAC) in Mexico City, published a report, “Old Politics and New Government,” with the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.
  • The Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center released a report,“New Ideas for a New Era: Policy Options for the Next Stage in U.S.-Mexico Relations,” highlighting “five key issues with the potential to strengthen U.S.-Mexico relations.”
  • The Washington Office on Latin America published a report entitled, “Border Security and Migration: A Report from South Texas.” The report finds that there was no spillover violence, but an increase in the number of drugs moving across the border, particularly of heroin and meth in 2012. It offers a good look at 2012 migration trends. Wired’s Danger Room provides a short overview of sections of the report that examine drugs and organized crime.
  • The Migration Policy Institute and the Woodrow Wilson Center published a report last week, "Crime and Violence in Mexico and Central America: An evolving but Incomplete US Policy Response." The report looks at the United States' response to the dramatic increase in Mexico and Central America in recent years that has been driven "in part by a shift in cocaine-trafficking routes throughout the region and, in part, by the incomplete transition from authoritarian to democratic ways of upholding the rule of law."
  • Guatemala

  • Earlier in January, Guatemala announced it would stop recognizing Inter-American Court of Human Rights rulings on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987, drawing much criticism from human rights organizations. Nonetheless, the trial against former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity is still moving forward. Ríos Montt is accused of having directed the murder of thousands while ruling the country as de facto president from 1982-1983, during its civil war.
  • It was reported in early January that Guatemala’s murder rate dropped for the the third year in a row in 2012. However several reports about high levels of violence against women have come out as of late, including a short piece by Amnesty International and a longer article by the International Business Times. The IBT article includes an interview with the Inter-American Dialogue’s Central America program associate who reports, “a lot of the violence against women that occurred during the armed conflict is being repeated today.”
  • El Salvador

  • The second phase of El Salvador’s government-mediated gang truce began as the the first “peace zone” was inaugurated this week in a town called Ilopango, near the capital of San Salvador. According to the agreement, all gang members in the violence-free areas will not commit any crimes and will participate in gang prevention, reinsertion and job training programs. There are expected to be 18 peace zones in total, while four mayors have already confirmed their participation in the process. The next peace zone will be established in Santa Tecla on the 25th and another in Quezaltepeque on the 31st.
  • Nicaragua

  • Homicide rates in Nicaragua went down in 2012, with the government registering 675 violent deaths last year, 63 fewer than in 2011, which had a reported 738. That number represents an 8.5% decrease. There was also a reported 9% reduction in overall criminal activity.
  • Venezuela

  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is still in Cuba and undergoing physical therapy treatment, as Bolivian President Evo Morales asserted in his state of the union speech Tuesday. Venezuela Vice President Nicholas Maduro traveled to Havana on Wednesday to visit President Chávez. Newly-appoint Foreign Minister Elias Jaua also traveled
    to Cuba this week and returned to Caracas on Thursday. In a call to state television, he said that during his visit with Chávez, the president "made decisions about the international agenda, the domestic agenda." He added that while "the president is in the process of recovery, the battle against the most complex and profound part of the sickness is coming." The Venezuelan government said Tuesday that there was no date planned for the president to return to Caracas.
  • Friday, April 27, 2012

    Defense Department drones at the border

    WOLA’s report about U.S.-Mexico border security, published last week, says that the Defense Department is not using drone aircraft for surveillance on the U.S. side of the border zone.

    The main reasons for this are that most Pentagon drones are being used in war zones, and because there are still concerns about air traffic control (the possibility of drones crashing into commercial planes). The Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection agency, however, runs six Predator-Bs, plus one maritime variant, out of Sierra Vista, Arizona and Corpus Christi, Texas.

    In fact, WOLA’s report is already out of date on this issue. Testimony last week by the Pentagon’s top homeland security official, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Stockton [PDF], reveals that, as of this year, four Defense Department drones are now operating out of Arizona.

    They aren’t Predators or Global Hawks, though. They’re RQ-7Bs, far smaller craft with a 14-foot wingspan, usually launched by a catapult.

    (Photo from Department of Defense.)

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    Pictures from Adam's latest border visit

    P1040353I'm just back from several days of border-security research with WOLA colleagues in Tucson and Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Here are some photos from the trip. My entire Flickr photo set is here.

    Downtown Nogales, Arizona. The hill (to the right of the border fence) is Mexico.

    Looking west along the border fence, from the U.S. side. Nogales, Mexico is to the left.

    Climbers have scuffed the rust buildup on the recently constructed U.S.-Mexico border fence.

    A U.S. Army National Guard Early Identification Team looks south toward the border, Nogales, Arizona. This is the tail end of "Operation Phalanx," a 1,200-person National Guard deployment that began in June 2010 along the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. These teams -- two people in lawn chairs under tents with binoculars and communications equipment -- will soon disappear as the Guard deployment's size is steadily reduced to 300 people.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011

    What we saw in the El Paso-Juárez border zone

    In September 2011, three WOLA staff members — Senior Associate Adam Isacson, Senior Fellow George Withers, and Program Assistant Joe Bateman — paid a five-day visit to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Isacson returned to El Paso for three days in October.

    We found two cities that, while separated only by a narrow river, are rapidly growing further apart. Ciudad Juárez is undergoing wrenching change as dysfunctional state institutions confront powerful, hyper-violent criminal groups. El Paso has witnessed an unprecedented buildup of the U.S. government’s security and law enforcement apparatus.

    The results have been mixed. Violence has not spilled over into El Paso, in part because the drug traffickers do not want it to do so. The flow of migrants from Mexico into the El Paso region has nearly ground to a halt due to greatly increased U.S. security-force presence, the poor U.S. economy, and the danger that organized-crime groups pose for migrants on the Mexican side of the border. The flow of drugs, meanwhile, continues at or near the same level as always.

    What we saw in El Paso raised concerns about U.S. policy. Present levels of budgets and personnel may not be sustainable. Nor may they be desirable until a series of reforms are implemented. These include human rights training for law enforcement, improved intelligence coordination, reduced military involvement, stronger accountability mechanisms, increased anticorruption measures, and greater attention to ports of entry. They also include a much sharper distinction between violent threats like organized crime or terrorism, and non-violent social problems like unregulated migration.

    Any reforms, however, need to be guided by a coherent policy, and for the moment the U.S. government still lacks a comprehensive border security strategy. In El Paso, WOLA found that this lack of clarity amid a security buildup has hit the migrant population especially hard.

    Read more at WOLA's website.

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    Perception vs Reality: Illegal Migration in Decline

    Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar.

    This post was written by WOLA Fellow Lucila Santos.

    On July 16, at the National Governors Association 2011 Annual Meeting, Governors Jan Brewer (R-Arizona) and Martin O'Malley (D-Maryland) co-chaired the National Governors’ Association Special Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. The meeting included, among others, guest speaker David Aguilar, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). To see video of the discussion, click here.

    Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, the widespread perception is that U.S. border states are suffering from drug-related violence spilling over from Mexico. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, called it “the politics of fear.” [This dynamic resembles current debates on insecurity in the Southern Cone, like Argentina, where the perception of insecurity far outstrips the real rates of crime and homicide.)

    Deputy Commissioner Aguilar’s presentation offered a general look at the size of CBP and its work in protecting the 7,000 mile-US border. He also addressed southwest border security in light of Mexico’s increasing violence and the fears of spillover into bordering states. Following are some of the most important points Aguilar made:

    · Aguilar stressed that violence rates have fallen dramatically in border states in the last 10 years and thus, border communities are today safer than ever. He gave some figures: violent crime rates decreased 17% in San Diego, 22% in Tucson, 11% in McAllen (Texas) and 36% in El Paso.

    · El Paso is next door to the most violent city in the world, Ciudad Juárez, which saw over 3,000 murders last year. Contrastingly, in El Paso, last fiscal year, there were only 10 murders, none of which were drug or cartel related.

    · Aguilar mentioned that in border states’ law enforcement and border security communities, there is a lot of frustration regarding the common perception that bordering states are insecure and risk a violent spill-over from Mexico. Yet, the truth is that the border has never been as safe and strong as today. He cited USA Today’s investigation published July 15th, which found that “rates of violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border have been falling for years.” Aguilar mentions that he knows and works with those interviewed in the article, and confirmed their view of border security and the non-existence of spillover violence.

    · Aguilar said that 2000 was the year in which apprehensions of illegal migrants peaked. Since then, there has been an 80% decline in illegal crossing apprehensions at all US borders and coast lines. So far, in FY 2011, 257,000 apprehensions have been carried out. From these, 106,000 were apprehended in Arizona, 42% of the total.

    · In the last year, there was a 44% reduction in illegal crossings apprehensions in Arizona alone, and 31% in total in the southwest border zone.

    · Aguilar pointed out that, beyond the fact that eradicating illegal immigration is impossible, there will always be a “baseline flow” of illegal immigrants as long as the draw to migrate to the United States continues to exist, especially since Americans continue to hire undocumented migrants as cheap labor. Likewise, Aguilar mentioned that the same is true for drug trafficking: as long as people continue to consume drugs, these will continue to flow into the United States.

    · Because illegal crossings have decreased, evidenced by the decline in apprehensions, Aguilar explained that CBP has now more time and resources to concentrate on drug trafficking.

    Governor Brewer commented on Aguilar’s presentation, stating that her administration is advocating for a law that penalizes those that hire undocumented workers. However, she seemed adamantly opposed to Aguilar’s argument about the safety of border states, arguing that “operational control” over the border is only at 44 percent. She called for more forces, troops, and technology. She used as evidence her ‘eyes and ears” in Arizona, what the citizens tell her, what she sees in the streets.

    Aguilar responded that the largest number of agents is stationed in Arizona. In addition, he also mentioned that last year, 42% of illegal aliens apprehended in Phoenix by local law enforcement had crossed the border in the last 3 to 30 days, while the rest had been in the country for more than a year. This year that figure dropped to less than 20%.

    Aguilar’s testimony matches recent reporting by Damien Cave of the New York Times about a decline in illegal immigration due to better economic, demographic and social conditions in Mexico, along with the poor economy or legal crackdowns in the United States. In his piece, Cave explains that the decrease in birth rates in Mexico is reducing “the pool of likely migrants.”

    In the 1990s, Mexico had around one million new potential job seekers each year, while by 2007 that number had dropped to 800,000. Education and employment opportunities have expanded: “per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000.” Politically, “Democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined.” Meanwhile the cost and risks of crossing the border have sharply increased. The possibility of being kidnapped by the Zetas or caught by U.S. agents is higher, as are the fees for being crossed over by coyotes.

    These are examples of the pull and push factors that affect migration. As a result, illegal immigration is not only an exclusive security issue or an entirely American problem. It is a multidimensional problem cross-cut by economic, social, political and security concerns in both countries. These factors need to be taken into account when analyzing and designing migration and border policies.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    New Report: Policy on the Edge

    The Center for International Policy's TransBorder Project is pleased to share its new report "Policy on the Edge: Failures of Border Security and New Directions for Border Control." This new International Policy Report discusses the unsettled state of America's post-9/11 border security policy.

    Author Tom Barry, director of CIP's TransBorder Project, argues that despite massive expenditures and the new commitment to “border security,” the United States' border policy remains unfocused and buffeted by political forces. "In the absence of a sharp strategic focus, the management of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to be the victim of the problems and pressures created by our failed immigration and drug policies," he writes.

    The report recommends a new policy framework "that charts the way forward through regulatory solutions--for immigration, drugs, gun sales, border management--that are more pragmatic, effective and cost-efficient than current policies." Specific recommendations include:

    • Conducting a cost-benefit evaluation of the border security buildup;
    • Imposing a moratorium on new border security funding;
    • Addressing the failed drug prohibition, gun rights, and immigration policies that drive illegal border crossings;
    • Terminating the new rash of federal-local border security programs; and
    • Setting forth a new vision of pragmatic immigration reform that is not conditioned on the ambiguous notion of border security.

    Download "Policy on the Edge" as a printer-friendly PDF
    Read the HTML version of "Policy on the Edge"

    The press release is below:

    WASHINGTON, DC – A new report released today by the Center for International Policy reveals the unsettled state of America’s post-9/11 border security policy, highlighting the flaws of the United States’ conflating counterterrorism strategy, the war on drugs and immigration enforcement in our border policy.

    Written by TransBorder Project director Tom Barry, the timely report, "Policy on the Edge: Failures of Border Security and New Directions for Border Control" (PDF | HTML), examines how despite massive expenditures towards the renewed commitment to “border security” after 9/11, U.S. border policy remains unfocused and buffeted by political forces. In the absence of a sharp strategic focus, the management of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to fall victim to the problems and pressures created by failed immigration and drug policies.

    “Like the ill-considered invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the ‘global war against terrorism,’ the post-9/11 border security buildup has drained our treasury while doing little to increase our security,” says Barry.

    According to "Policy on the Edge," the border security framework has fostered alarmist politics about border threats and wasteful spending. "Absent necessary strategic reflection and reform," writes Barry, "the rush to achieve border security has bred dangerous insecurities about immigration and about the integrity of our border, while giving new life to the flagging war on drugs at home and abroad."

    Barry concludes, "Bankrupt and without strategic direction, it is time to rein in the border security bandwagon and to establish new regulatory frameworks for U.S. border policy."

    The report recommends a new policy framework that charts the way forward through regulatory solutions—for immigration, drugs, gun sales, border management—that are more pragmatic, effective and cost-efficient than current policies.

    The report recommends discarding the border security framework for border policy and advocates:

    • Cost-benefit evaluation of the border security buildup;
    • Moratorium on new border security funding;
    • Address the failed drug prohibition, gun rights and immigration policies that drive illegal border crossings;
    • Terminate the new rash of federal-local border security programs; and
    • Set forth a new vision of pragmatic immigration reform that is not conditioned on the ambiguous notion of border security.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Getting it Wrong: Pursuing a Military Solution to Law Enforcement Problems on our Border with Mexico

    This post was guest-authored by George Withers, a senior fellow for Regional Security Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. A former staffer for the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Withers has closely followed the growing use of the U.S. military and National Guard in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

    A bill introduced at the end of the last Congress, and again at the beginning of this one, would greatly expand the U.S. National Guard’s mission on the border with Mexico. Introduced by Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas), the bill would require that “not less than” 10,000 additional National Guard troops be deployed along the border on what would turn out to be a permanent basis.

    While the bill itself has little chance of passage – none of its co-sponsors in either Congress comes from a border district – it still merits a critical analysis. Rep. Poe and the bill’s other sponsors clearly intend to spark a debate about the role of the U.S. military, particularly the National Guard, on U.S. soil. What they propose, however, would set a disastrous precedent for U.S. civil-military relations and for the legal framework governing the National Guard’s mission, while having little impact on U.S. citizens’ security.

    The bill responds to a political impulse. The worsening epidemic of drug-fueled violence on the Mexican side of the border has claimed a great deal of attention in recent years, and especially in the past few months. Also under the media spotlight have been illegal immigration and the steady flow of illicit drug trafficking from Latin America through Mexico and the Caribbean into the United States. As these challenges continue to mount, the need for a response has been felt more urgently, both in Washington DC and in border states.

    In May 2010, President Obama announced that 1,200 National Guard troops would be stationed along the border in support of the effort to address these problems. While they were sent with specific instructions not to be directly involved in searches or detention of suspected lawbreakers, the Guardsmen are armed and are meant to provide a visual and physical deterrent at the border. As such, their presence implies a threat to use military force.

    This deployment, the Poe bill, and similar proposals appear to respond to a belief that if law enforcement personnel are good, then the military is even better. The higher level of potential violence catapults the armed soldier into the role of “Supercop.” Indeed, in Mexico and in several other countries in Latin America, especially Central America, several governments have turned in desperation to their militaries to do the work of outgunned and/or corrupt police agencies. But is deploying the military the appropriate response? In particular, is it the right answer – even temporarily – in the United States, where the legal concept of separate police and military roles has a strong and relatively successful history?

    Rep. Poe, an original founder of the Victims’ Rights Caucus, has more than once taken admirably strong stands in opposition to violence against women in Mexico and elsewhere. But when it comes to protecting U.S. citizens from law enforcement problems on the border with Mexico, he opts for militarization. His bill would not only deploy an additional 10,000 National Guard troops, it would do so in the following ways:

    • The bill would add a very comprehensive new section to the U.S. Code, entitled “border control activities.” This provision would enable greater federal assistance to the states’ use of the National Guard and significantly broaden the Guardsmen’s activities and authorities. These would mean allowing – or requiring – the National Guard to participate in, among other duties:

      • Armed vehicle and foot patrols on U.S. soil along the international border.
      • Interdiction of vehicles, vessels, or aircraft, including those of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.
      • Search, seizure, and detention of suspects, including U.S. citizens.
      • Intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance, including against U.S. citizens.
      • Aviation support.

      All of these activities are currently – appropriately – assigned to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel, both of them entities of the Department of Homeland Security. Most or all of these new military activities would go far beyond what the National Guard currently practices in its current border deployment missions, as defined by the border states’ governors and the National Guard Bureau. They also are in contravention of the legal principles and practices of the federal Posse Comitatus Act, which generally disallows the military’s use in law enforcement.

    • The Poe bill would set a 10,000-person minimum troop strength level (which is in addition to any and all troops already deployed) and keep it in place until “operational control” of the border is achieved. “Operational control” is defined, by reference to a 2006 law, as when the Secretary of Homeland Security can certify “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.” This “all unlawful entries” language sets a very high standard: it is highly unlikely that the prevention of every single illegal entry into this country could ever be certifiably achieved. Thus these troops would, in effect, be deployed permanently.

    • It is highly unusual, if not entirely inappropriate, for the U.S. Congress to pass a law dictating the appropriate level of troop strength in any specific mission deployment, as the Poe bill would do through its “required” 10,000 level. Such an operational decision falls under the core competency of military leadership, not politicians.

    • The bill chooses to authorize the troops’ deployment under a section of the U.S. Code that allows for “training” purposes only. However, since the bill would call on the Guard to carry out extraordinarily increased police activities that the military does not have a traditional legal mandate to perform – including searching and apprehending U.S. citizens – it contemplates use that goes way beyond “training.” These duties are “operational.”

    • The bill would exempt the deployment from end-strength limitations that are key to a well-balanced and militarily ready National Guard. To deploy large numbers of Guard members away from their home units, without consideration for how they would be replaced or how units might return to their designated force levels, would be disruptive to say the least.

    Beyond these mostly technical problems with the bill, there remains the larger issue of militarizing our border law enforcement. Whether through the Poe bill or any other policy change, the circumstances do not warrant such a large, risky and potentially counterproductive step.

    Rather than a threat of violence “spilling over” from Mexico into the United States, FBI Uniform Crime Reports actually point to an overall decrease in violent crimes in metropolitan areas along the border. El Paso, Texas, directly adjoining the border with Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, is statistically one of the safest cities in the United States: with 5 murders in 2010, it registered its lowest homicide rate since 1965. Individual, anecdotal incidents aside, the overall trend points away from the need to arm against an “invasion” or significant threat of violence.

    Vastly increased numbers – and increasing strengths – of civilian law enforcement personnel, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, are already demonstrating success in keeping the U.S. side of the border area safe. To turn to the military serves more of a political purpose than a practical one.