Gitmo: the Quagmire Time Forgot

I often think about what inspires change and why change doesn’t happen, especially in egregious situations. Acknowledgement of the problem is the first thing needed for change. Once headline news, time has forgotten the dilemma and tragedies of Guantanamo Bay.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay (referred to here as Gitmo) outside of US legal jurisdiction and the laws of war.  The farther we get from the shock of 9/11 and the establishment of Gitmo in response, the easier it is to forget what an aberration and abomination it is.

Gitmo was established out of fear. The US argued that it needed to protect itself from terrorists who didn’t play by the rules of war. Members of Al Qaeda were willing to fly planes into buildings full of innocent people. We were afraid.

In 2002 the US constructed the prison on a US military base in Cuba. The prison is outside of US legal jurisdiction because it is not on US soil. The US claimed that those incarcerated there were not prisoners of war, protected under the Geneva Convention. They were terrorists and classified as “unlawful enemy combatants.” To manage this designation, the US invented a military commission to try and judge those so imprisoned. Thus, started a 20-year legal battle over a sham “justice” system.

Since opening, over 800 men have been imprisoned in Gitmo. They came from many countries but were all swept up in efforts to corral members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Many were tortured along the way. Today, only 39 remain. 19 of those have been “recommended for transfer.” This can be a cruel designation as some have held this status for decades without leaving Gitmo. Only one person has been transferred since 2016.

Over the years we have learned that we should have been more afraid of ourselves. Gitmo and what it represented, the willingness for the US to operate outside of the laws of war, the use of CIA black sites and torture. Gitmo is a reminder of the worst of US exceptionalism. If we don’t like the rules of the game, we won’t let them apply to us.

If the moral weight of the prison isn’t enough to make us want to change. Gitmo should be closed because it prevents some of those charged with the 9/11 attacks from being held accountable. After 20 years the military commissions have brought none of them to justice because it is not a real court. Out of respect for the families of the lost, we should bring these men to trial in a real US court.

Closing Gitmo is not easy, but that doesn’t mean there are not solutions. Almost all of those formerly held in Gitmo have been transferred to other countries. Uruguay resettled 6 men cleared for release during the Obama Administration. Countries could be incentivized to take the 19 with transfer status. While Congress has restricted the use of funds to transfer detainees to US soil – and the US justice process – the President could veto that legislation. There are blueprints for emptying the prison, trying those charged, and closing this chapter of history.

The hardest problems to solve are the ones that no one owns. While we no longer think about the Gitmo prison, the US owns it. We own holding people for decades without charge; we own the torture committed against some of the prisoners; we own the fact that we have created a sham judicial process that will never work; and, we own the need to legitimately prosecute those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

I’m not sure what will finally prompt this change, but I do know that it won’t close if we forget the multiple tragedies that it represents.

  • This column was first published on Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site, MexicoToday.com 2/7/22.

Militarization in Slow Motion

Change in slow motion can leave one desensitized to its significance. With that in mind let’s take note of the changing role of the Mexican military.

In the final decades of the 20th century, military dictatorships were the main threat to democracy in Latin America. During this period, Mexico stood apart from much of the region because its military had a limited role, mostly addressing matters of national defense with some disaster response and drug eradication. But that limited role has changed.

Since the mid-1990s, the Mexican military has had a growing variety of roles in public security, often temporarily used to respond to drug trafficking, police corruption, and high homicide rates. Deployments of the military, or newly ex-military, in public security were generally accompanied by a political message that read: this was temporary, pending the implementation of long-term reform. Now, 25 years in, the military’s role in public security is being regularized.

In 2019 President Andres Manuel López Obrador created the National Guard. It was announced as a civilian public security body but was initially populated with active duty military who literally put on new arm bands to show their participation in a different force. In parallel, the President announced in 2020 that direct military deployment in public security tasks would end in 2024.

Today the National Guard has replaced the Federal Police and is formally part of the Ministry of Citizen Safety and Protection. But the majority of the Guard’s roughly 100,000 members are still military. They live in barracks and their commander is a general. And, abandoning all pretense that the National Guard is meant to be a civilian police body, López Obrador has stated that he will seek a constitutional reform to formally make the Guard part of the Ministry of National Defense; that is, the new force would become part of the armed forces.

Over time the Mexican military has accumulated responsibility for: ports and customs; immigration control; drug eradication; distribution of materials in response to Covid-19; natural disaster response; and construction in mega projects like the new Mexico City airport and the Mayan Train.

It is argued that using the military in these roles is efficient (they are already mobilized so why not use them). And that they are less corrupt than other Mexican civilian institutions.  

I find both arguments perplexing. When claiming efficiency, no one ever factors in the cost to maintain a force large enough to take on these roles. The corruption issue is even more perplexing. How would one ever determine that they are less corrupt? The Mexican military is one of the least transparent institutions in the country. And now it is giving out no bid contracts on construction projects, a highly questionable practice if anti-corruption is the goal.

So, what’s the downside to the expanded use of the military?

First, it delays problem solving. Stephanie Brewer, from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) puts it well, “Instead of buying time for (civilian) authorities to implement solutions, militarization has become the addiction that postpones those solutions indefinitely.”

That’s the second problem: using the military to address problems that don’t have a military solution doesn’t work. After 25 years of unsuccessful attempts at using the military in public security and drug control that failure seems clear.

Third, it undercuts civilian government. When you give too many authorities to one institution, only that institution has the capacity to respond, meaning that it will continue to be called upon. In this case, that institution is the one that has guns. Giving too many responsibilities to the military disturbs the balance of power. The more you do it, the fewer options you have.

Once the hemispheric example of quiet and limited civilian power, the Mexican military’s responsibilities are increasingly being expanded. Ojo, broadening military roles weakens democracy.

*First published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma‘s English language site MexicoToday.com, 1/10/22.

Thankful for Three Women: More Misuse of Mexico’s Organized Crime Law

I’m thankful for people who do hard things for the public good while under tremendous pressure. It was recently reported that Mexico’s anti-organized crime law was spuriously used to surveil three such people: Marcela Turati, Mimi Doretti and Ana Lorena Delgadillo. Here is who they are, why the use of the organized crime law against them is so wrong and why I am thankful for them.

Marcela Turati is an award-winning journalist who has done amazing and dangerous work to uncover information about the disappeared in Mexico. She is one of the founders of Periodistas de a Pie, an organization of journalists helping and training journalists doing rights related investigations. Mexico is the deadliest place in the world to be a journalist and Marcela is known for undertaking dangerous investigations.

Mimi Doretti is the leader of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). This organization uses forensic tools to identify human remains and works with families searching for missing loved ones. The EAAF has helped identify victims of government abuse and organized crime as well as migrants who have perished on their journey to a better life. Mimi and the EAAF have trained young anthropologist throughout the world, including Mexico. Their findings have been used in prosecutions and comforted families of the previously lost.

Ana Lorena Delgadillo runs the Fundacíon para la Justicia in Mexico. The Foundation uses the judicial process to hold accountable those responsible for disappearances and accompanies the victims’ families in the process, which is often long, complicated and painful. They work with families of the disappeared in Mexico, including Central American migrants.

The work of these three came together around the identification of mass graves near San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2011. In this series of bloody crimes, 193 people, many of them Central American migrants, were taken off of buses, killed and dumped in mass graves. No one has yet to be held accountable.

Now, decade later, the work to uncover the truth about San Fernando continues. As part of this process, the Fundación para la Justicia requested access to the legal case files and was able to get them in 2021. One thing revealed by the documents was stunning. In 2015, the Mexican government had used an anti-organized crime law to investigate these three women, who were not involved in the crime, but investigating the massacre and helping the victims’ families. These women were put under surveillance and their communications monitored as if they might be responsible for the killings. Yes, that is as twisted as it sounds and yet another misuse of Mexico’s anti-organized crime law.

Shame, or better yet accountability, should be heaped upon those who put these amazing women under surveillance. I think the phrase, “they worked tirelessly” is overused. But not when it comes to these three. They make our society better. As we reflect upon 2021 and look forward to 2022, let’s strive to be more like them, brave and tireless; and do more to hold accountable those who seek to intimidate, or do worse, to those seeking justice.

*Originally published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site, MexicoToday.com 12/20/21.

Remain in Mexico 2.0: Civil Society Left Holding the Bag

The US asked for, and Mexico has accepted, the reinstatement of “Remain in Mexico,” the policy that makes asylum seekers stay in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the United States. This policy violates international law, gets Mexico to make promises that it has no intention or capacity to fulfill, and leaves civil society to deal with the mess of human suffering it produces.

The Biden administration says that it intends to terminate Remain in Mexico but is justifying the reinstatement because of a court order. Biden should not get brownie points for wanting to do the right thing, because implementing the court order violates other laws. The Administration is actually taking advantage of the court order. Remain in Mexico 2.0 will cover more categories of people than the previous version and Title 42, the adjacent and unjustifiable Covid-19 policy that allows the government to immediately expel others, has just been renewed.

The new agreement between the US and Mexico claims that it will address serious humanitarian, security and due process issues that abounded with the previous version. To address these concerns, the Department of Homeland Security, in its “Guiding Principles for Reimplementation” claims the following, that: 1) asylum cases will be heard in a timely fashion and asylum seekers will have “meaningful opportunities to access and meet with (legal) counsel;” 2) they are working to ensure that there will be shelters in Mexico and secure transportation to and from ports of entry; and that 3) no one will be returned to Mexico if they “demonstrate” a reasonable possibility of persecution or torture in Mexico.

Based on past experience with Remain in Mexico, here is what we can reasonably expect.

We know that US asylum seekers are much more likely to win their cases if they have legal representation. We also know little legal representation will be available. According to HIAS, a US immigration organization that helped provide legal representation the last time around, only about 10% of those under Remain in Mexico actually secured legal representation. This time, some lawyers who tried to help in the past are refusing to participate because they believe that by doing so they will be facilitating the violation of international law.

We know that security is a huge problem for those forced to wait at the border. It is well documented that this population is targeted by organized crime. NGO Human Rights First has documented 7,647 cases of kidnappings and violent attacks against people blocked or expelled to Mexico since President Biden took office. We also know that these crimes are grossly under-reported and almost never prosecuted.

We know that there are not sufficient shelters to protect those who are forced to wait. There isn’t sufficient shelter now and the numbers of people will only increase. One of the times when migrants are at greatest risk is when they move from shelters to the border for scheduled appointments. Mexico’s standard policy has been that it will not provide any additional protection for asylum seekers that is not provided to the regular Mexican population.

We know that people will not have sufficient access to medical care. Under the last round of Remain in Mexico, Global Response Management (GRM) responded in the border state of Tamaulipas. This is an organization that sets up emergency clinics in precarious humanitarian situations. Their idea is to go in early and help cover medical needs before the bigger organizations can establish a presence. The problem was that the bigger NGOs never came. Many international NGOS consider the Tamaulipas border to be too dangerous and will not put staff there. GRM is still there helping as best they can, but it is not enough.

When it comes to the US making exceptions for asylum seekers who are at risk if they remain in Mexico, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until now, even those who had previously been kidnapped in Mexico were returned when they tried to apply for US asylum.

There are NGOs and attorneys on both sides of the border who worked incredibly hard to provide support to those who suffered from the Remain in Mexico 1.0, and to help the US end that program. They are the ones who provide food, shelter, medicine and legal assistance to those in need. They are hopping mad that it is being reinstated. From experience, they know that they will be left holding the bag, having to figure out how to help those who will suffer under this policy. This is a chronicle of suffering foretold.

No matter what pretty words are in this agreement, we know what’s coming because we have been here before. And neither government has earned our trust that their stated intentions will be put into practice. Asylum seekers will get stuck, for months, if not years on the Mexican side of the border. They will not have housing; they will not be safe; and they will not get legal representation. And both governments will leave it to the NGOs to bear the burden of this policy.

*First published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site MexicoToday.com, 12/6/21

Fear in Mexican Academia

The Mexican Attorney General’s Office has charged a number of accomplished of academics with organized crime and money laundering. Yes, you read that correctly and it is as crazy as it sounds. Just to be clear from the start, they are not accused of being involved with drug trafficking or pocketing money to buy mansions. The accusation relates to one academic program’s support for another academic program.

Organized crime and money laundering are real problems in Mexico. They are impediments to a more prosperous and equitable Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is known for his campaign against corruption. But what is happening here appears to be something else.

The López Obrador government alleges that one academic institution, CONACYT (the National Council for Science and Technology), used funds to inappropriately support another academic institution, the Foro Consultivo (the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum). Even if true, it is not clear that a crime has even been committed since CONACYT’s governing documents reportedly mandated it to support the Foro Consultivo.

I don’t know the particulars of academic financing in Mexico and have no opinion about whether or not inappropriate academic financial transfers took place. But let’s look at the supposed crime – organized crime and money laundering – and the penalties they could incur. Does the accusation fit the alleged crime?

The UNODC defines organized crime as, “a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities…. (and) is maintained through corruption of public officials and the use of intimidation, threats or force to protect its operations.” Global Financial Integrity defines money laundering as, “the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and integrating it into the legitimate financial system.”

In this case, it is reported that CONACYT approved the budgets and expenses of the Foro and that the funds were externally audited. While something may have been inappropriate, it is hard to imagine how a misdeed of this type rises to the level of organized crime or money laundering.

In Mexico, simply being accused of these crimes can result in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison. The Mexican Attorney General has twice sought arrest warrants for the academics. Twice judges have denied the request.

So what is happening here? Why these outsized charges for leading academics? Along with AMLO’s anti-corruption theme have been austerity measures that have hit public universities hard. The Foro did not just complain about the cuts, they sued the government over austerity related cuts.

Academia is based on challenging ideas. Their research should (and does) challenge the status quo. Threatening academics with a stint in a maximum-security prison is beyond the pale. Fear will keep them from performing their role in society.

The government’s allegations create real fear within the Mexican academic community. Maybe instigating fear is the intent. To silence and ensure compliance.

Unfortunately, this is not over. The Mexican Attorney General has said that he will seek another warrant for the academics. Scaring professors into not criticizing the government will not help Mexico. Organized crime and money laundering are the real problems.

*First published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site MexicoToday.com 11/23/21.

Time to Own Cuba Policy

It is ten months into the Biden Administration and time they started owning their approach to Trump era foreign policies that they haven’t changed – like Cuba policy. US policy toward Cuba is stuck in a Cold War time warp and held in place by domestic policy concerns that have nothing to do what makes sense for 2021.

The Obama Administration stepped back from the Cold War “regime change” approach to Cuba policy and instead focused on encouraging change through engagement. With justifiable fanfare – after half of century of relations based on the idea that economic and political isolation would force change – the Obama Administration re-established a US embassy, eased rules on travel that dramatically increased the number of US visitors and eliminated almost all restrictions on the delivery of remittances to Cuba. While Cuba is one of the rare cases in which the US Congress has codified economic sanctions, meaning the Obama Administration couldn’t lift the entire embargo without congressional action, they went a long way in changing the fundamentals of the policy and the relationship.

Under the Trump Administration the US/Cuba relationship reverted to the 1980s. Since President Biden took office little has changed. Technically the US embassy in Havana still exists, but it has few staff members. With almost no staff, they don’t have the capacity to provide visas to Cubans for refugee admissions, family reunification or other options. This lack of legal pathways for migrations is contributing to the large number of Cubans crossing through Mexico and attempting to cross undocumented into the US at the southern border. While travel to Cuba had expanded greatly by the end of the Obama Administration, now only a handful of direct flights from the US are allowed. As Covid-19 related economic disruptions hit Cuba hard, the Trump Administration all but ended the flow of remittances from the US to Cuban families, first limiting total remittances to US $4,000, then imposing sanctions that made it impossible for Western Union to transfer remittances through Cuban financial institutions. These left-over policies from the Trump Administration mean that now, under the Biden Administration US/Cuba policy is still based on isolation.

The question of what to do with countries that break the rules of democratic governance – like Cuba – has long been a diplomatic challenge. If military intervention is off the table – which I’m glad it is – economic sanctions are considered one of the primary tools available to convey objection to human rights violations or anti-democratic behavior.

In recent years a lot of questions have arisen about the impact of economic sanctions, not just toward Cuba, but around the world. General economic sanctions are considered to have serious unintended consequences for the most vulnerable people in the target country. It is not the rich or corrupt who suffer. It is those living on the edge, taking public transportation and using public health services.

With these critiques in mind, the US Treasury Department recently published a global review of sanctions policy. The review recommended changes in how sanctions should be structured rather than recommending changes to specific country sanctions. Nonetheless, it is relevant to Cuba as three of the key recommendations are that: 1) sanctions be linked to a clear policy goal – while Cuba sanctions are about regime change; 2) the cost of sanctions should fall on the intended target – while Cuba sanctions impede access to humanitarian goods and limit the ability of families to support their loved ones; and 3) there should be international support for sanctions – while the UN votes regularly to condemn US sanctions on Cuba.

Among the Treasury Department’s recommendations are this: “Going forward, Treasury will continue to review its existing authorities to consider the unintended consequences of current sanctions regimes on humanitarian activity necessary to support basic human needs, as well as potential changes to address them while continuing to deny support to malicious actors.” Applying this analysis to existing US/Cuba policy is something the Biden Administration needs to do now.

To be clear, the reconsideration of sanctions should not ignore the Cuban government’s authoritarian practices, violations of due process or human rights abuses. This summer, discontent over food shortages, power black outs, and the government’s failure to follow through on promised reforms led to an eruption of spontaneous protests in Cuba, the likes of which have not been seen in decades. It was exciting to watch the free expression of popular sentiment. Unfortunately, the government quickly shut it down. A follow up protest is scheduled for November 15th. There is no doubt that the Cuban government will go to great lengths to stop this protest before it starts. They have a long history of detaining protest leaders before protests even happen. The US and others can and should encourage the Cuban government to tolerate and listen to dissent. The international community shouldn’t be indifferent when popular protest gets stifled. But being critical of Cuba doesn’t mean sticking to a failed policy of isolation.

Restructuring Cuba policy isn’t easy, but just keeping the Trump era restrictions is not the answer. For political pragmatists in the Democratic camp, there is always a reason not to change Cuba policy. Right after Biden came into office it was because he had bigger fish to fry – the domestic economic and social policy agenda. Then, all of the foreign policy political capital was spent on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now the reason for inaction is the US mid-term congressional elections. It would incense some voters in south Florida and they think risk the Democrats ability to win congressional seats. After November of 2022 the rationale will be that Cuba policy change will risk the Democrats ability to hold the presidency. The excuses are endless.

It is time for the Biden Administration to own the policies they implement. They did this in a good way last week when they issued a new ruling to end Remain in Mexico, the Trump era policy that forces US asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the termination of their cases in the US. That wasn’t a politically easy change. Now they should own Cuba policy by refocusing on engagement, as Obama did, and implementing the sanctions recommendations made by the Treasury Department. Waiting won’t make it easier and certainly doesn’t make current policy any better.

* Originally published on 11/2/21 in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site MexicoToday.com

The Judge Made Me Do It

The Biden Administration has recently announced that it will reinstate the “Migrant Protection Program” (what a misnomer) also called “Remain in Mexico” (somewhat more honest). Established by the Trump Administration, it requires asylum seekers, who approach the US border from Mexico, to stay there while their cases are adjudicated.

If you thought that policy was still in place, you are excused. It is very hard to keep track of US policies to deter asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. Just to refresh your memory, the other one is called “Title 42,” which sounds like an article of the Constitution or the chapter of a much too long book. Title 42 is shorthand for the health code that allows the government to turn back potential asylum seekers using a public health rationale. While it may have had justification early in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now simply a specious legal argument that allows the Border Patrol to turn people away before they can apply for asylum.

Democrats cried foul when the Trump Administration created Remain in Mexico, and a sad looking encampment of asylum seekers formed in Matamoros, within sight of the Brownsville border crossing. When President Biden was elected, they reversed the Remain in Mexico policy and dismantled the camp, but kept Title 42. It was a handy rationale to keep asylum seekers at bay.

Now, US courts have instructed the Biden Administration to reinstate Remain in Mexico. But before we allow “the judge made me do it” excuse to settle in, note that this decision was made because the Trump era program was determined to have been improperly terminated. The Biden Administration could simply decide to end it in a way that is acceptable to the court.

Let’s be clear. Instead of deciding to properly end the Trump era program, which violated international asylum commitments, the Biden Administration will own Remain in Mexico. This stain is on them.

Where does all of this leave asylum seekers? Dumped back on the Mexican side of the border, without support. There are currently camps of potential US asylum seekers sitting in plazas in Reynosa and Tijuana. They are disturbing scenes of humanity, filth and people being preyed upon by criminals.

Neither country wants to encourage asylum seekers and seem to think that misery is the best deterrent. Where are the international humanitarian assistance organizations that we all know and love – the big institutions like the UN High Commission for Refugees or the big international NGOs? Not in the most dangerous Mexican border cities. They all consider them too dangerous to have a continuous presence. The US State Department lists Tamaulipas as a “Do Not Travel” state, and seriously restricts the travel of US employees.

But this is where we will send migrants to wait while their US asylum claims are considered. To be clear, people requesting asylum do so because of a fear of persecution in their home countries. Our response is to make them wait in places where international organizations are too afraid to work, and US government employees are prohibited from moving about. US citizens are rightly outraged when children’s rights are not respected in US immigration facilities, or when Haitian migrants are chased on horseback at the border. But if we push these same people across the line back into Mexico, those so outraged fall silent. Pushing the asylum crisis into Mexico, into places US citizens will not venture, may help those on this side of the border sleep better at night, because they don’t see the problem. But Remain in Mexico creates a nightmare for asylum seekers and if President Biden reinstates it, he will shoulder the blame.

*Originally published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site MexicoToday.com – 10/19/20.

The Urgency of Tackling the Root Causes of Migration

This past week Mexico and the US restarted high level economic talks. This is good; as this kind of diplomatic engagement was dismantled under the Trump Administration. Central American migration was on the agenda. That’s good too, but both countries need to start displaying a sense of urgency to address the causes of migration.

Granted, high level diplomatic dialogues are not detail laden affairs. These are meetings of “the principals–” cabinet secretaries — and in this case Vice President Harris. They are designed to build the participants trust and facilitate problem solving, laudable goals. But this meeting reminded me of how much talk there is about addressing the “root causes” of migration and how little substance I see.

The presidents of both countries inherited dysfunctional migration systems from their predecessors, but both have also been in office long enough to own the policies that they execute. Neither country’s rhetoric aligns with what people in Central America experience.

The US talks about a US $4 billion investment in the Northern Triangle. But US economic aid is the slow boat to China (or in this case, Central America). It generally takes years from the moment that spending is announced, for it to be approved by Congress, contracted out and then implemented. To someone desperate for change in their immediate future, what could happen in two years means nothing.

Vice President Harris is also encouraging businesses to invest in Central America, but the US is not playing diplomatic hardball with fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic governments, and economic and political elites. If the US wants more investment in the region then their anti-corruption policies need to be more than tough tweeting.

Then there is Mexico, which professes to offer hope by announcing the expansion to Guatemala of Sembrando Vida, an employment generation/tree planting program; accompanying this announcement was an appeal to the US to provide temporary work visas for those who participate. Let’s take that apart. The provision of large numbers of temporary work visas to Central Americans could be an important part of a legitimate response to the outflow of people from the region and something that could give people immediate hope. But linking Sembrando Vida to a US visa, is a political gimmick. Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees. The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.

When both countries want to move fast to address a problem, they can. Just look at the US response to the Afghani refugees, or how fast the Mexican National Guard was brought in to stop migrants at Mexico’s southern border. When there is a sense of immediacy, and when a crisis does not involve our borders, both nations spring into action. But when the desperate people are your neighbors, it’s a different story.

The politicians are talking a good game about the root causes of migration in Central America, but the talk is miles ahead of action. Instead of giving people hope that things will change, all this talk is feeding cynicism. Only actions that are concrete and have some immediate component will provide a thread of hope to would be migrants. Both governments feel political urgency when it comes to migrants and refugees crossing our borders. Let’s see some urgency in addressing the root causes of migration.

*Originally published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site, MexicoToday.com 9/15/21.

Mexico, the US and Venezuelan negotiations

Venezuela is mired in crisis, but a new round of negotiations, that started in Mexico on August 13th, provide new hope, albeit distant, for something better. Both Mexico and the US have potentially constructive roles to play in this process.

Two years ago, after elections on a dramatically slanted playing field gave Nicolás Maduro a second six-year term as president, 60 countries chose instead to recognize the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó as president. As international support turned to Guaidó, and Maduro’s government became more isolated internationally, both sides turned to Norway to facilitate a process of negotiations.

That round of negotiations, known as the Barbados talks, ended by the fall of 2019, without positive conclusion. Hard-liners and skeptics on both sides willed it to fail, and too many outsiders, including the US, did not actively support the negotiations. Complicating matters even more, Venezuela had become a place where the US’, China’s, and Russia’s geopolitics were playing out.

The biggest losers in all of this are the people of Venezuela. Over 5 million people left Venezuela as a result of the economic and political crisis that started well before 2019. The economy is in shambles. There is hyper-inflation. While not creating the economic crisis, US sanctions have hobbled any possible economic recovery, but not achieved its desired outcome, pushing Maduro to relinquish power. The healthcare system was in collapse, then came Covid-19.

The new round of negotiations is somewhat surprising. Power dynamics and possible outcomes as in any negotiation are constantly shifting; some argue that Maduro is stronger than the opposition political parties. That said, neither side goes into these negotiations with much support from the people they are supposed to serve. A recent Datanalisis poll showed that 75% of Venezuelans consider themselves “independents” and very few trust either the government or political parties.

Venezuelan civil society organizations, working together, are stepping into the credibility gap and developing concrete proposals to solve the problems of daily life. Even if civil society organizations don’t have a seat at the negotiating table, their proposals should be taken into consideration. Working together around these proposals, the government and the opposition could solve concrete problems and build confidence with each other and with the public.

Negotiations observers should not view this as a quick way to reinstate the opposition, as many did the last round. The only way out of this complex crisis is to start walking a path of conflict resolution and problem solving. Hopefully these negotiations begin by creating agreements that ease the lives of Venezuelans and provide greater humanitarian assistance. And, lay the groundwork for local and regional elections in October that encourage participation by all parties.

Only Venezuelans will resolve the deep-seated, multilevel crisis that is Venezuela today. Nonetheless, the international community can play a role in its success or failure. Mexico is choosing to play a constructive role by hosting this process. It is showing that non-intervention doesn’t have to mean non-engagement.

The US is already engaged concerning Venezuela. The EU, the US and Canada recently released a joint statement saying that they were willing to start lifting sanctions if negotiated agreements can be reached. That’s a positive start.

The hardest part of the negotiations process could be to get all parties at the table, and for those supporting it, to keep their eyes on the prize – results that actually benefit the people of Venezuela.

*Originally published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s publication, MexicoToday.com, 8/16/21.

A 1,000 Pounds of Ash and Bone

Half a ton, 500 kilograms, over a thousand pounds of human remains in the form of ash and bone fragments have been found in La Bartolina, near Matamoros, Mexico. That’s what has been found to date in an effort to uncover what happened in this notorious place, just 12 kilometers from Brownsville, TX.

This “clandestine cremation site” or a “place of extermination,” once reportedly used by the Gulf Cartel, was identified in 2016, but not much about it has been reported officially until now. Karla Quintana head of Mexico’s National Search Commission in her semi-annual report revealed that this site has been being processed for the past five years, the last two by her office.

1,000 pounds. Let the weight of that sink in. How many people could that possibly have been? No one knows. What went on in La Bartolina was an extended atrocity. Some say that the cartel used the area from 2009-2016. How could something so horrible go on for that long and on this scale?

There are two things that might answer this question: the normalization of disappearance; and a fear-based abandonment of the region.

While families of the disappeared are working in remarkable ways to find their loved ones, often doing complex investigations themselves, disappearance in Mexico has also become normalized. Kidnappings happen a lot and we have gotten much too used to hearing about them.

The Mexican government’s registry of the disappeared contains about 88,000 names and covers the period of 2006 to the present. 21,000 of those on the list have disappeared during the AMLO administration. Kidnappings, disappearances and the findings of remains are all linked. While the Bartolina findings are historic in nature (they happened in the past), this year alone 71 people have disappeared on the road between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey.

The AMLO administration should be given credit for acknowledging the problem and assigning serious people to run the National Search Commission. But we have all gotten too accustomed to talking about disappeared people. This is not normal or at least it shouldn’t be.

Then there is the rational fear-based avoidance of places like Tamaulipas. This state feels like the land everyone gave up on. Criminal organizations decide the parameters of what gets reported by the media and can shut down cities at will with outbursts of violence. No one wants responsibility for what happens there, so national authorities keep their distance. Searching the US State Department’s travel advisory page for Tamaulipas shows this message, “Do Not Travel due to crime and kidnapping.”

At both the national and international level organizations seem to have decided that Tamaulipas is too dangerous to even try doing anything about – best to just steer clear. When I ask humanitarian organizations why they don’t work in Tamaulipas, the answer is almost always because their security protocols – designed to keep their own workers safe – don’t allow it.

So that leaves us what we have now, an area where locals and migrants passing through, are in serious danger and few from the outside are even willing to witness their plight.

I am not cavalier about the risk. It is real. But we know what you get when no one from the outside is watching. You get 1,000 pounds of ash and bone.

*First published in the Mexican paper La Reforma’s English language site, MexicoToday.com 8/2/21