Guerrero Deserves a Functioning State

Issues of violence and human rights in the state of Guerrero can bring the most ardent optimist to throw up her hands. Last week, I was reminded of that frustration while reading the latest report from the International Crisis Group, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, (May 4, 2020). Instead of getting better, the situation of violence and crime in the state is becoming more complex.

My first visit to Guerrero was in 1990. I accompanied Mexican colleagues to document violence and human rights issues. The PRI and the PRD were contesting local elections. These were the early days of the challenge to one party rule. Parallel governments were set up in towns where the PRD believed they had won but were not allowed to take office. Some set up parallel police forces. State repression against protesters was serious. People were beaten and killed. It was one of the most overtly tense environments I have ever experienced.

The complexity of violence in Guerrero did not start in 1990. That political conflict was set upon historic poverty, an absence of state presence in rural communities and a lack of needed political reform. The 1960s and 70 saw the formation of small guerilla groups met by intense state repression during Mexico’s Dirty War.

Layer the problem of drugs on top of that. Drug production has been a staple of the Guerrero economy for as long as anyone living can remember. Drugs from the Andes started being trafficked through Guerrero to the United States in the 1980s as trafficking routes shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico. And then there is the role of the Mexican military, which has been eradicating drug production in the same rural parts of Guerrero for decades – literally.

Lack of democracy, poverty, corruption, and illicit commerce are a toxic brew for violence. Instead of challenging the underlying problems, every political party that has governed the country and the state has found it easier to ignore rural areas, accommodate or turn-a-blind eye toward illicit actors and maintain the status quo.

The Crisis Group report highlights a newer ingredient to this toxic mix that has added another level of complexity – self-defense forces. Communities without adequate state presence, had to figure out how to fend for themselves in this complex and too often violent environment. They formed their own local defense forces. According the Crisis Group, “Clashes between the self-defence forces and criminal groups now account for much of the violence afflicting Guerrero. But in seizing territory and resorting to extreme violence, some of these autodefensas have started to resemble criminals themselves.”

Guerrero is a place where state administered justice is in short supply. In 2014, 43 students were disappeared here in one attack. Local, state and federal investigations have all failed to tell these kid’s parents what happened to them, much less hold the perpetrators responsible.

Bringing fundamental reforms to Guerrero would be no small feat. It would be dangerous, costly and most importantly require sustained political will. The citizens of Guerrero deserve functioning government. It is time for the state and federal governments to give these communities the sustained attention that all citizens deserve. That attention, in and of itself, could be the beginning of a solution.

Published 5/11/20 in Mexico Today

Twisting Opportunity in Crisis

April 27th opinion piece published in Mexico Today

I value the idea of seeking opportunity in crisis, but President Trump has ruined it for me.

Periods of crisis are times of accelerated change. The people who can see through these moments come out on top. Their creative abilities are put to the test. Practicality and innovation surface. Problem solvers thrive in this environment. 

At least, that is how I used to think about it.

When our national energy is focused on surviving the public health and economic crisis presented by the coronavirus, President Trump has taken advantage of this moment to tighten the noose on the US immigration and asylum systems.  And, he does it in the name of protecting us from the virus.

He is taking a truth, that we need to be careful about the transfer of the virus and twisting it into a rationale for implementing policies he has long desired, like dramatically restricting migration, or keeping people in search of asylum off US soil.  

Think back over the past few years. First there was the “Muslim ban”; then attacks on “chain migration” otherwise known as family reunification; then refugee resettlement numbers were slashed; then there was “metering” – only allowing a few asylum seekers to enter the US on a given day; followed by “Remain in Mexico” – forcing people who have already applied for asylum in the US to wait out their legal determination in Mexico. The combination of the last two stranded tens of thousands on the Mexico side of the border.

Now Trump has twisted “opportunity,” using the coronavirus response to further his immigration goals. The Administration now pushes unaccompanied migrant children back into Mexico because they could carry the coronavirus, while at the same time, allowing commerce between the two countries to flow.  Are children more likely to be virus carriers than truck drivers?

This past week, he announced, by tweet of course, that he is suspending immigration to the United States.  “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” (April 20). Not surprisingly, that wasn’t exactly accurate, as temporary worker visas continue to flow as they are deemed essential workers, but he is stopping family reunification.  

There is a rule of thumb in public policy advocacy that it is much harder to secure rights in law and practice than it is to take them away.  They say that the new restrictions are temporary and will be reviewed in two months – but will they?  

Trump has found a twisted form of opportunity in this crisis, and I’m afraid I will never see this concept the same way again.

Searching for the Disappeared in Mexico

In the context of organized crime – often drug related – people have been disappearing in Mexico for decades. Prodded by the victims’ families, the government has finally begun a more serious effort confront the reality of the disappeared.

Families of the disappeared often received little help from the state. As a result, small groups of families have taken matters into their own hands and formed “collectives” to investigate the disappearance of their loved ones. This is dangerous work.  If your family member is disappeared it is because the perpetrator didn’t want them found. These “collectives” are made up of some of the bravest people in the country, real heroes.  Some have killed as a result of their efforts. 

The “collectives” have gotten results. They have identified perpetrators, found clandestine graves and forced the government to exhume remains. The Lopez Obrador administration committed to address the issue of disappearance during its campaign and, so far, progress is being made. That progress can be evaluated in stages:  1) identifying the scope of the problem; 2) identifying as many existing remains as possible; 3) and dealing with disappearances in real time. Here are two positive things have been done so far. 

First, the government has collected more complete data. 40,000 is the number that has was commonly used as the tally of the disappeared.  But in January, the government’s National Search Commission released a report documenting 60,053 disappearances between 2006-2019. 

That number is still below reality, as 12 Mexican states (shamefully) did not participate in the data collection, but it is an improvement. To address disappearances, the scope of the problem needs to be fully understood.

Second, the government has agreed to the formation of a national/international group of technical experts to clear the backlog of unidentified cases through forensic testing. Thousands of families have provided DNA samples in hope of finding a match with the recovered remains. But, the backlog in DNA testing is massive. There are 37,000 unidentified bodies and thousand more fragments, that need testing. Hopefully, this new group of technical experts can start making a dent in the backlog.

Then, when this group is up and running, it should allow domestic forensic teams to focus the governments’ DNA identification capacity on real-time case work, facilitating the prosecution of criminals. In 2019, 5,000 people were disappeared in Mexico.

According to a new report from the WOLA, the US will help fund these efforts to address disappearances. This is appropriate as many disappearances are related to criminal activity rooted in trafficking oriented toward the United States. Confirming this reality, the National Search Commission documented that in 2018 and 2019, three of the four Mexican states with the highest number of disappearances bordered the United States. 

Government institutions previously established to resolve the problem of disappearances in Mexico, have failed miserably in their mission, letting down the valiant families desperately searching for their loved ones. Efforts to fix the system have begun showing some promising signs.  Let’s make sure this time it works.  

* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson

Reflections from my Pandemic Home Office

This is also my most recent opinion piece in Mexico Today

I’m working from home during the pandemic. My life has slowed down.  There is a mental space that you have when you aren’t problem solving all day.  You can observe, read, chat with people, and walk your dog – a lot.  I keep thinking about what I should learn from this experience.

Here are two reflections:

First, the divide between hourly workers and those with salaries is so big, that it is hard for me to feel the pain of those who have lost their jobs. 

I’m a consultant, without a regular paycheck, but I work this way by choice.  While I sympathize with the plight of laid-off hourly workers, it’s not my current experience. I have to think back to when I was younger. Then, I did live paycheck-to-paycheck. It was stressful. It required so much mental energy and planning.  You have to be really good at managing money when you are poor.  

My guess is that if you are reading this, you are not a minimum wage worker.  Think about this, if you made minimum wage, how would you get your family through the week? Now think about what it would be like to get laid off. That is stress. That’s what hourly workers are experiencing.

While this is a difficult situation for so many in the US, I got a call from an old friend in Honduras.  She is not an hourly worker.  Worse yet, she is in the “informal” sector. She and a small group of women make snacks and sell them on the street and in small local stores.  Virus related restrictions prohibit her from selling, and without sales they don’t eat.

Those of us with salaries, still being paid, must not be complacent about what current stay-at-home restrictions mean for those without income.  

Second, both Mexico and the US are run by men who either don’t believe in science or who simply won’t listen to scientists and medical professionals.

A big difference between life during the Spanish Flu of 1918, that killed an estimated 50 million, and COVID 19 is that we now understand how pandemics spread. With that knowledge, we have the opportunity to lessen the impact of this virus.  But knowing how to control the spread and actually doing it is not the same thing. 

The scientists are saying to use social distancing as much as possible to slow the spread.  Both President Trump and President Lopez Obrador have resisted this message. Having access to scientific knowledge isn’t enough. Our leaders must implement policies that use this knowledge to protect the community as a whole.

Our leaders must understand that we want evidence based public health policies.  At the same time, those of us with an income need to really feel the hard choices that are being made between public and economic health. Sacrifice needs to be made by all in the interest of the public good. 

Lastly, let’s make an effort to see people who are in need and help them.  And while we are at it, let’s start electing people who believe in science.

Mexico Today Column 3/16/20

Opinion | Thank You to Women Protesters

If you pay attention to Mexico, and unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the women’s movement has grown dramatically in visibility and influence over the past year.  They are having an impact.

To protest violence against women, last week the movement put tens of thousands (at least) in the streets one day and on strike another, forcing the media, government, and the economic sector to pay attention. 

Mexican social movement protesters get high marks for turnout and creativity. This round included “a day without women” strike, chants that included dance moves and the names of 1,000 femicide victims painted in the central square.  The last reminded me of the AIDS quilts of the 1980’s – striking a chord too personal to ignore.

Creativity is key because that’s what makes the message stick.  And the message was clear.  Women have had it with the violence that impacts our daily lives.

These protests made me stop and think about how violence against women is normalized, and how we structure our days to avoid violence directed toward us. Not random violence, but violent acts committed against us because we are women.  

It is engrained in us from youth to consider:  when we go out, where we go, what we wear, whether we consume alcohol, if we take a cab instead of walk, and so forth. We live trying not to get hurt.  And the unspoken message is that if we are irresponsible with our surroundings or behavior, being abused will be our own fault.  

I thank and herald the women of Mexico who made me stop and think about the insidiousness and flagrancy of violence against women. 

They gave us two days of creative action. Now it is our job to work every day to recognize the ways we limit ourselves, and to work harder for justice for those killed because they are women and because men can unleash violence against us without consequence. 

A Tale of Two Tent Cities

My column from Mexico Today 3/2/20

On a visit this past week to Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico I was confronted by a tale of two tent cities.

In easy view from the border crossing is a massive tent city that houses migrants. It is constructed of camping tents and tarps. Somewhere between 2,000 and 2,800 people (depending who you ask) are in the tent city. They are forced to wait in Mexico until the United States decides if they will be given political asylum.

The tents sit on hardened dirt. I can only imagine the muddy mess it is when it rains.  Anyone can walk into the tent city. There is no permanent security. We heard rejoicing over a new bank of port-a-potties; the first time the Mexican government had provided any sanitation. The other port-a-potties were donated.  Neither the Mexican government nor UN agencies run the tent city.  With the help of volunteers, many from the US, the refugees have had to figure things out for themselves.  

Just across the river (and border) from the tent city is a tent court.  This is where political US asylum claims are processed. It is also a tent city and covers the area of a few city blocks. Behind a strictly guarded perimeter, there are courtrooms, waiting areas, air conditioning, and childcare provided by licensed teachers. No mud here. This place is shockingly clean. The port-a-potties here are cleaned every 90 minutes.

Inside the courtroom the scene is reminiscent of the “Hunger Games.”  A judge appears remotely on a massive screen before rows of asylum seekers.  Even if the judge has a kind demeanor and is a clear communicator, it’s impossible to miss the underlying tension. What happens here is about survival. 

Three quarters of those in the camp are non-Mexicans who have applied for asylum in the United States. Once the application process starts, they are immediately returned to Mexico to await a decision – hence the camp in Matamoros. The US calls this the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” There is no evidence that “protection” has anything to do with what is going on here. Even people who were previously kidnapped in Mexico, and those who have been granted asylum, but are pending appeal from the US government have been forced to return and wait.. These so-called “protection” protocols are being challenged in US courts, but the practice remains in place pending a final decision.

The other quarter of the population is Mexican.  They wait for the opportunity to apply for asylum under “metering.” This is an informal system where numbers are handed out – like at the deli counter.  Mexicans can wait for months, often with their children, in the tent city just to ask for asylum. 

The US needs to stop this farce. We have a legal and moral obligation to provide protection to legitimate asylum seekers. Instead, we make them suffer hoping that they will abandon their requests. The Mexican government needs to take some responsibility here, too.  “The US made me do it” is not a policy. These asylum seekers are on Mexican territory.  Step up.

When desperation trumps misery

I’ve started a bi-weekly column for the Mexico Today, an English language site that is part of the La Reforma newspaper. I will cross-post the columns here.

Misery should not be a public policy goal. But, it certainly seems to be if one looks at the experience of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border.  

While generally couched in other terms, the basic idea seems to be this:  If you let conditions get really bad, and people suffer long enough, they will give up and go home.  

The US government keeps making it harder and harder for anyone to request asylum at the southern border. They have created a nightmarish system.  Asylum seekers have to wait for months for the opportunity to approach officials and file a petition.  Once they do apply, they are returned to Mexico to wait for their claims to be adjudicated.  This process often requires repeated trips to the US and back out again to Mexico.

The Mexican government allows its territory for use as the anteroom for US asylum seekers – the Remain in Mexico program.  While I’m sure that the US pressured Mexico to do this, Mexico did it.  These asylum seekers are now Mexico’s responsibility. 

Unfortunately, Mexico seems to share the US policy goal of making asylum seekers miserable. According to the state of Tamaulipas, the federal government is not providing assistance to the asylum seekers while they wait.  The traditional private migrant shelters don’t have the capacity to handle the massive number of people now waiting on the border.

The media is flooded with stories of asylum seekers in dire conditions, living in tents surrounded by mud and cold weather.  The only thing in abundance seems to be illness and fear.  Small private organizations do what they can, but they cannot fill the gap left by the state ignoring its responsibility. For example, physical security is a constant problem.  A new report from Doctors without Borders, documented that last October, 33 of their 44 patients in Nuevo Laredo had been recently kidnapped.  These we people who had been pushed back into Mexico to await their US asylum claim.  

The Mexican government does help people who abandon all hope of asylum and agree to return home.  Some asylum seekers have given up and left the border.  Tens of thousands more remain.  This population is going nowhere fast.  

What you get when desperation trumps misery is human suffering.  This should not be anyone’s policy goal.

The death of anti-corruption efforts in Central America – or – Hang Crepe on Your Nose

We should all be in mourning for Central America.  Not only because a new caravan of migrants decided to abandon their homeland in search of safety and a better life, but because Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has killed off the innovative national anti-corruption mechanism that brought at least some hope that things might change.

Just a few years ago, Central America was in the global vanguard of anti-corruption efforts.  Getting to that place was not easy.  The region had world-class corruption; it infiltrated the state and inhibited national development.  But they also had amazing political and civil society leaders, supported by the international community, who took on this seemingly insurmountable problem.

Guatemala was first.  In the early 2000s civil society leaders, who had concluded that organized crimes’ infiltration of the state had paralyzed the justice system, began exploring models to support a functioning justice system. They concluded that they needed not just the support of, but also the intervention of, the international community – a decision not taken lightly. 

Over the next few years, civil society developed concrete proposals for new mechanisms. This pressure combined with a political moment created by a series of horrendous murders that were linked to the state, created a moment for change. In 2006, the United Nations and the Guatemala government signed an agreement creating the International Commission to Investigate Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  The CICIG accompanied the Guatemalan justice system in the investigation and prosecution of cases where organized crime had infiltrated the state.  While an uphill battle, laws were changed; complex investigations and legal cases were constructed and successfully prosecuted; and criminals, elected and otherwise, started being held accountable.

In 2016, Honduras, in response to domestic pressure created by blatant corruption that included the ransacking of the country’s social security fund, set up its own internationally supported anti-corruption body, this one connected to the Organization of American States and called the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). 

The creation of these institutions in Guatemala and Honduras required the stars to align in such a way that entrenched and corrupt political interests saw in their creation the only way to maintain a semblance of credibility. While these institutions were hard to create, they were easy to kill.  They existed because of an agreement between the government and an international body.  All any president had to do was to let the anti-corruption body’s mandate expire. Intense domestic, as well as international political support was required to keep the CICIG and MACCIH alive.

Support for the CICIG and the MACCIH was widely bi-partisan in the United States.  Congress approved money to support these efforts and a great deal of political pressure was exerted by US ambassadors to keep them from being decimated by the powers they were built to confront. Even during the most favorable environments, these two institutions were always hanging by a thread. That’s what happens when corruption goes straight to the heart of the government. In Guatemala, the CICIG helped take down President Otto Perez Molina. Honduran President Juan Orlando has been plagued by corruption accusations as well, and his brother has been convicted on drug charges here in the United States.

Under the Trump Administration, that political support disappeared.  US ambassadors in Honduras and Guatemala stepped back, no longer playing a vocal role in support of these critical anti-corruption bodies. In fact, US officials challenged the CICIG in Guatemala in relation to a case involving Russia, and in Honduras, rather than lifting a finger to keep MACCIH alive, the Administration sent constant messages of support for President Hernandez, making clear that he would suffer no consequences from it’s demise.

Now we see another caravan of Hondurans headed toward the United States and once again ask why they flee. The answer is a lack of hope. The majority of Hondurans live in poverty. They experience violence and extortion. Now they see their own government close down the MACCIH – a mechanism that could have confronted the corruption that keeps their country stuck. What do you expect?

I’m reminded of a phrase my father would use when we children would do something obviously stupid. “Hang crepe on your nose your brain must be dead.”

Reality Check

Skype call this morning with colleague in Belgium.

Wifi keeps cutting out as a helicopter passes over my house three times.

Me: I’m sorry for the interruption, there was a mass shooting in my neighborhood last night and the helicopters are interrupting my wifi.

Me Again: (recognizing the words that had just come out of my mouth) I need to stop right here. There was a mass shooting last night in my neighborhood. An assault weapon was used.  Two people died and five were injured.  That is what I should be sorry about, not my interrupted wifi.

Colleague:  I’m very sorry.

Me:  I am too.

Violence is normalized.  We accept it as just another part of the day. This isn’t normal.  Stop and recognized what is happening to you, to us.  This is our society and we are the only ones who will change it.

Mexican National Guard -Mexico/Guatemala border Post #2

One of the first things that President Lopez Obrador did upon entering office was to form a National Guard.  One of the first things he did with the National Guard was send them to the Mexico/Guatemala border.  This was done, at least in part, in response to President Trump’s insistence that Mexico do more to stop migrants headed to the United States.

What you see.

The most well-known border crossing is at Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.  There, the Suchiate River separates Guatemala from Mexico (picture above).  There is a bridge with an official crossing point where passports are stamped, but the real action happens on the river.  If you’ve seen pictures of migrants crossing into Mexico on rafts they were likely taken here.  It is quite a sight.  Within easy view of the bridge dozens of rafts carry goods and people across the river all day long.  We saw a lot of goods transiting back and forth. 

It is a rather expansive area with different loading areas for different goods – toilet paper and household items in one area, beer and sodas in another, cement farther down. Apparently the nearest Sam’s Club does a brisk business with those involved in informal commerce. One spot was reportedly where more illicit items crossed. 

We were told that commerce crossing by raft is still allowed under usos y costumbres (use and customs), which is an interesting application of a legal concept designed for the governance of indigenous communities.  It seems a handy way to explain the fact that the informal crossing of commerce is how these communities have functioned forever and they are not about to let the federal government change that.

What you don’t see.

Normally, there would have been a good flow of migrants crossing by raft.  We did not see them.  The river’s shore was filled with National Guard and other troops, each small group of them within eyesight of the next.  They wore regular military uniforms.  You know which ones are National Guard because they wear armbands with the letters NG.  They are there to stop the crossing of migrants. The goods flowed. 

Undocumented migrants, who have used this crossing point in the past, are not there now.  The presence of the National Guard has stopped that.  If migrants cross here, they are detained, handed over to migration officials and put in a detention center.

So did the migrants stop coming?  If you look at the numbers of detentions and deportations from the US and Mexico, numbers are down.  However, the numbers tend to drop this time of year because it is unbearably hot. Time will tell if the reduced flow will last.

The best-case scenario for undocumented migrants is that they pay a coyote to take them safely across the border and then accompany them through Mexico to the US.  That’s how undocumented migrants with money make the trip. Those without money cross in remote areas that are riddled with criminals who prey on the migrants. Undocumented migrants seldom report crime.

The presence of the National Guard in Ciudad Hidalgo is forcing migrants to cross in more remote areas where they will likely be the victims of crime, or forced to engage with criminal networks.  For historical reference, this is the same thing that happened at the US/Mexico border.  As the US enhanced border security, migrants started crossing in more remote areas.  This shift coincided with the consolidation of organized crime on Mexico’s northern border (something that really should be studied more) as well as a rise in migrant deaths in remote areas of Arizona and Texas.

Once inland, poor migrants don’t travel on main roads where there are checkpoints to ferret them out, but on roads like this one. 

At other border crossings we saw some National Guard, but not nearly the show of force that was present in Ciudad Hidalgo. 

I can’t help but comment on the border crossing at Nuevo Orizaba. It is not an official point of entry.  Nonetheless, it has a lovely, new border facility on the Mexican side that sits empty and is closed off by a fence.  Apparently the backstory is that the Guatemalan government never finished paving the road to the checkpoint so it was never opened. There is, however, a dirt road connecting the two countries that circumvents the unused migration building.  That road is where crossings happen.  And, it isn’t rafts filled with toilet paper, but semi-trucks filled with who knows what.

What’s real?

The deployment of the National Guard at the Mexico/Guatemala border, much like the US National Guard deployments to our border, is likely temporary.  It is to make a political statement and have a short-term impact.

One other thing struck me.  For years, the US has been interested in Mexico’s southern border supposedly for security reasons. The use of the National Guard at Mexico’s southern border is not about stopping drugs, guns or criminal organizations.  It is unapologetically about stopping poor people from heading north.