Heart of darkness: Life in the Northern Triangle and the failure of international protection (part 1)

Photo: Reuters

Imagine a place where numerous powerful, armed groups operate throughout the territory. In any given city or rural area, two or more of these groups may be active, and there are constant and extremely violent clashes over territory. These armed groups regulate the daily life in areas under their control through curfews, standards of behavior, and conduct surveillance to see who communicates with whom. Add to that, the armed groups frequently demand “rent” (extortion) from citizenry living in their areas of control, from rich and poor alike, from the lady selling food out of a cart to a rich landowner.

They also like to recruit youth, particularly young men, and membership in these groups is for life – any attempt to leave is punished with violent reprisals against the person in question or his or her family. Similarly, young girls are targeted to be forced into sexual “relationships” with members of the group; women and girls are frequently raped and murdered, by their own “partners” and also as reprisals by their “boyfriends'” enemies. Recruitment is not voluntary: either you join, or they assume you must be collaborating with another group and hence are a threat. Refusal to comply with a demand from a member of an armed group, in terms of  refusing recruitment, refusing payment, or refusing sexual relations, will result in death threats. Walking on the wrong side of the street, wearing the wrong clothes, or having the wrong hairstyle can similarly imply affiliation with a group. And death threats often result in  gruesomely violent death: decapitated, hung from bridges, beaten to death, shot multiple times in broad daylight, mutilated. There is almost complete impunity for these crimes: in some places, over 98% of murders go unpunished, because of lack of resources or capacity by the authorities, or because armed groups have infiltrated, corrupted, or threatened police, witnesses, and the judiciary, or because authorities are unwilling or unable to take on groups whose members reportedly number up to 85,000.

Welcome to the Northern Triangle, comprising Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. More people were murdered in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, than in the entire country of France in 2015 with a murder rate of 142 per 100,000. The number of homicides in San Salvador was equivalent to the number of homicides in the UK, France, and Germany combined. Sources describe that, “Gang-related violence in El Salvador brought its homicide rate to ninety per hundred thousand in 2015, making it the most world’s most violent country not at war.”  [click here to see homicide rates for South Sudan, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Haiti]. There is almost complete impunity for crimes, over 98% of murders and 95% of sexual attacks go unpunished (and apparently, 2 out of the only 3 shelters for rape survivors in Honduras operate as brothels).


If you lived in this kind of hell, where would you go? What would you do?

If you took your family’s savings and paid a smuggler to take you elsewhere, you would face a long overland journey where you could be subject to physical and sexual abuse (80% of women and girls crossing through Mexico from Central America report having been raped along the way), vulnerable to kidnapping and murder, or might choose a risky form of transportation that could well cost you your life or limbs. You pay a lot of money to make it across the border, and risk dying in the desert. You are intercepted by border control, detained, given a cursory interview, and deported. And then killed.

Wait, what?

Clearly, not everyone who attempts to enter the US, nor everyone originating from these or other Latin American countries, is a person in need of protection as a refugee. But the above scenario should give pause to those who blithely claim that all Central Americans are only economic migrants. And the only way to know for sure if someone is a refugee or an economic migrant is to ask them, in a language they understand, and in a setting that provides sufficient confidentiality.

In essence, the question is whether (a) US procedures give sufficient opportunity for people to explain if they have a fear of returning to their countries, and (b) if that fear is be duly considered in light of US law and international refugee law to decide, on the merits of each individual case, whether that person is a refugee. Refugee advocates argue that neither of these things is happening. Instead, the US government is focused on deterrence and criminalization of those entering its borders “illegally”; officials do not find it disingenuous that everyone must perforce enter illegally if there are no legal channels to do so, even though under international law seeking asylum cannot be penalized as illegal entry.

Human Rights Watch describes, in a 2014 report, what happens to a person once they cross the border:

The vast majority of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border without authorization are placed in detention and undergo a hasty two-part assessment by US officials under either “expedited removal,” for first-time border crossers, or “reinstatement of removal,” for migrants who have previously been deported from the United States.

In either case, to pass the first stage an agent from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or another US immigration agency must flag the person for a “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” assessment. To pass the second stage, migrants meet with an asylum officer from USCIS who determines whether their fear of return is “credible,” or in reinstatement cases, “reasonable” – that is, whether there is a significant possibility they will prevail in immigration court on their claim for asylum or protection from deportation to a country where they are likely to face torture.

[…] Data for 2011 and 2012 that Human Rights Watch obtained from Customs and Border Protection under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that few Central American migrants are identified by CBP as people who fear return to their country in the first stage of the expedited removal process. The data show that the vast majority of Hondurans, at least 80 percent, are placed in fast-track expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings but only a minuscule minority, 1.9 percent, got flagged for credible fear assessments by CBP. The percentages for Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are similar, ranging from 0.1 to 5.5 percent. By comparison, 21 percent of migrants from other countries who underwent the same proceedings in the same years were flagged for credible fear interviews by CBP.

Graphic: HRW


For individuals and families who have been persecuted, brutalized, and abused, one would think that the proper response would involve sensitive staff, specialized care, and an in-depth evaluation of their situation.  Instead, HRW noted that the “US started detaining large numbers of migrant mothers and their children in July 2014 as part of what Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called an “aggressive deterrence strategy” aimed at Central American unauthorized border crossers, among them many asylum seekers.”

‘The ‘Caravan of the Mutilated’ Shows What People Risk When They Come to America, article by Alice Ollstein & Esther Yu-Hsi Lee (Photo: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee)

“[T]he common thread in DHS’ response to the thousands of women and children arriving at the United States’ southwest border in 2014 was to employ a multi-prong deterrence strategy consisting of (a) launching a multimedia public awareness campaign; (b) increasing U.S. assistance to help Mexico secure its southern border region; (c) decreasing the chances of gaining asylum by expediting the removal process; and (d) carrying out raids in January 2016 in search of individuals deemed to have exhausted their asylum claims. These actions were meant to heighten the challenges associated with coming to the United States and ensure that Central Americans knew about them.” (source)

Indeed, the US government’s policy of making the situation more difficult and dangerous, and making sure migrants know it, appears to have had little impact: “[A]nalysis of Honduran LAPOP survey respondents shows that knowledge of the risks of migration—deportation, border conditions, and treatment in the United States—played no significant role in who had plans to migrate and who did not have such plans.” Plans to migrate, furthermore, were closely linked to whether the person had been victimized once or multiple times in the last year:

“in Honduras, 28 percent of non-victims reported having intentions to migrate, which rises to close to 56 percent of respondents that had been victimized more than once by crime in the previous twelve months intended to migrate. In El Salvador, only 25 percent of non-victims had plans to migrate compared to 44 percent of those victimized multiple times expressing intentions to migrate. Only in Guatemala did non-victims and victims of a single crime report migration intentions at a similar rate.” (source)

It is therefore unsurprising that U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg, in his February 2015 ruling regarding DHS detention policy, concluded that, “Defendants [DHS] have presented little empirical evidence… that their detention policy even achieves its only desired effect—i.e., that it actually deters potential immigrants from Central America.”

Your tax dollars at work

Immigration advocates slam the increasing tendency in the US to criminalize immigration and immigrants, and to maintain detention, even of families and children, as an integral part of immigration policy. As Raul Reyes described it,

“The underlying problem with immigration detention is that most detainees are only guilty of being in the U.S. without authorization, which is a civil offense, not a crime. Yet detainees are treated like criminals, held behind bars and barbed wire, often in remote locations. In fact, in at least one respect, immigration detainees are treated worse than criminals: Criminal defendants have the right to a speedy adjudication and to court-appointed legal counsel. Immigration detainees do not. Detention punishes people in disproportionate relation to their alleged infractions, and contributes to the misconception that undocumented immigrants are criminals.”

They point out that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than native-born, and that the incarceration rates of the native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses. Nevertheless,

“Unfortunately, immigration policy is frequently shaped more by fear and stereotype than by empirical evidence. As a result, immigrants have the stigma of “criminality” ascribed to them by an ever-evolving assortment of laws and immigration-enforcement mechanisms. Put differently, immigrants are being defined more and more as threats. Whole new classes of “felonies” have been created which apply only to immigrants, deportation has become a punishment for even minor offenses, and policies aimed at trying to end unauthorized immigration have been made more punitive rather than more rational and practical. In short, immigrants themselves are being criminalized.” (source)

Some immigration advocates estimate that the cost of pursuing immigration as a criminal matter:

In Fiscal Year 2011 alone, “the federal government paid immense sums of taxpayer money to private prison companies, $744 million and $640 million to CCA and GEO Group, respectively.” According to a Grassroots Leadership report, by 2011 Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group, the nation’s two largest private prison companies, “enjoyed a combined $780 million increase in annual federal revenues since 2005.” The report also notes that since the inception of Operation Streamline until 2012, the federal government spent “$5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and re-entry, above and beyond the civil immigration system.”

Although it is difficult to quantify the full costs of prosecuting individuals for illegal entry and reentry, the National Immigration Forum has estimated that in Arizona alone, the costs are as high “as $10 million per month… [A]nother $3.6 million per month is spent on defense lawyers in Arizona, primarily court-appointed private attorneys. The cost to prosecute defendants in Operation Streamline averages $10,000 a day and $50,000 a week in Tucson alone.”

Put differently, “the cost to house each detainee at Dilley is about $108,000 per year. A study funded by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, of more than 500 detainees between 1997 and 2000, found that 93 percent will appear in court when placed in a monitoring program. The savings of such a program for the 2,400 detainees at Dilley would be about $250 million per year.”And these figures refer only to a single facility. The  U.S. government has the largest immigration detention system in the world:

“Surprisingly, the largest detention and supervised release program in the country is not operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, but by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, which oversees the nation’s immigration detention program. According to the DOJ, its Federal Bureau of Prisons had nearly 200,000 individuals in custody as of December 2015. On the other hand, DHS’s immigration detention program detains around 400,000 people each year.”

And guess what?  “62 percent of all immigration detention beds are operated by for-profit prison corporations. For comparison, 7 percent of federal and state prisoners were held in for-profit prisons in 2005, rising to 8.4 percent by 2014—an increase of just 1.4 percent.”

So, the only reason that people are being detained is because of decisions to criminalize immigration, and then detain people indefinitely at extensive cost to the taxpaper, while serving no real purpose.

“The 2014 budget request for detention was $1.84 billion, a funding level that works out to about $5 million a day. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that keeping a person in detention costs $161 a day; family detention costs $298 a day.
These costs are especially wasteful given that private companies control about 62% of the immigrant detention beds used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement . That means taxpayer money is going into corporate pockets.
Meanwhile, there are alternatives to detention that are much cheaper. The estimated costs of using electronic ankle bracelets or in-person reporting programs run from 17 cents to $17 a day, says the ACLU. These methods have proved effective as well. In 2013, one pilot program testing such alternatives reported a 99% appearance rate at immigration court hearings among participants, and 79% compliance rate for removal orders.” (source)


See Part 2: Asylum claims from Central America in the US and Canada


How terrorism in the West compares to terrorism everywhere else (WP)

The death tolls of attacks in Western countries pale in comparison to daily attacks in other parts of the world. In a few frenzied days in late June and early July, three Islamic-State-linked attacks killed over 350 people. On June 28, three attackers detonated their suicide vests at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and killed 45 people. On July 1, Bangladesh suffered its worst terrorist attack in history when gunmen killed 20 hostages at a Dhaka restaurant. On July 3, nearly 300 died in a busy Baghdad shopping district.

Read the article

So, about that peace deal: prospects for peace in Colombia

As a recent article noted,

The “how” and the “when” of Colombia’s latest peace breakthrough are of course important — but so is the “where” and “with whom.” On June 23, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC) signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement, after more than five decades of armed conflict. For Colombia’s peace process to succeed, it will need to break the cycle of conflict, organized crime and state neglect in Colombia’s border regions.

That’s fantastic. After nearly sixty years of conflict, we are all glad to hear it will soon be over. Four years of negotiations, a nifty new ceasefire and bob’s your uncle, now you’ve got a peace agreement, right? And then everyone will go home, happily ever after…right?

Anette Idler wrote a very nice piece for the Washington Post explaining how marginalized communities in border areas aren’t looking forward to any quick-fix situation. Quotes such as,

Any potential peace agreement with the FARC therefore raises a number of questions: What will happen to all those other armed groups who operate in Colombian territory and across the borders? Who will take care of the local population and provide economic opportunities? Who will be deciding on the rules of behavior that people need to follow to be safe? Will these marginalized regions face an upsurge in violence or see wider peace?

…ought to be common knowledge to policy-makers, politicians, and journalists who persist in the fiction that Colombia’s troubles begin and end with the FARC. Yet the evident complexity of the situation seems to pass over the heads of policymakers fixed on a peace accord as a solution to Colombia’s decades-long conflict.

The ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have been an extremely positive step in what has been an extraordinarily protracted conflict with several mutations. But the current conflict does not particularly resemble the kind of stylized ideological warfare, your “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” with a side of Che Guevara (for those who are into that sort of thing) that it once might have been . The FARC has lost a lot of its ideological base, and now relies substantially on activities and sources of income that are both commercial and illegal: drugs, extortion (NB: Timochenko announces that the FARC will helpfully no longer be engaging in extortion), mining, and pretty much anything else they can think is economically viable. Practices such as kidnapping for profit and recruitment of minors, both of which were officially disavowed, yet still continue (again, as a gesture of good faith, apparently the FARC will release all of their child soldiers). The FARC and other groups also have far-flung alliances as with the Russian Mafia, Mexican cartels, Hezbollah, and others.

Photo: Al Jazeera (allegedly)


Anyways, there are a number of reasons that any peace accord is not likely to result in a smooth transition to peace:

1. It did not go all that well the last time

Colombia does not have a particularly robust history when it comes to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. In 2004-2006, Colombia attempted to demobilize the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC, an umbrella paramilitary organization that was created to provide armed resistance to the FARC but turned out to commit horrendous atrocities and massacres). The main result, aside from a few prominent individuals who spent around six or eight years in jail under the Justice and Peace law (Ley de justicia y paz) and several of whom were now released! – in the main, the demobilization efforts managed to shatter the central command structure of the AUC but resulted in local factions returning to their power base, changing their names, and continuing with business as usual. (See: HRW, Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia, 2010).

2. The FARC isn’t the only game in town

The supposed demobilization of the AUC resulted in a number of neo-paramilitary groups such as the Urabeños, Águilas Negras, Los Paisas, Los Rastrojos, La Cordillera, Oficina de Envigado, Libertadores de Vichada, Los Machos, ERPAC… Some of these groups have fused with prior criminal structures associated with major Colombian cartels left over from the days of Pablo Escobar. While the respective fortunes of these groups have waxed and waned over the years, conflict among these groups and with authorities have created a shifting landscape were some groups may lose territory and strength, only to be replaced with new groups such as La Empresa. Some of the groups have further fractured to smaller groups (Los Traquetos, Los Nevados), or are outsourcing their violence to local gangs via oficinas de cobro, where one can hire a hitman or an extortionist. All that is to say that contemporary Colombia is a shifting landscape with a multitude of actors with national reach, and a multiplicity of actors in any given territory. Although international focus is on the FARC and an associated peace deal as the key to peace and security, this approach does not take into account other groups such as the left-wing National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) who recently began peace negotiations, or powerful groups such as the Urabeños, who have not (but may want to – except that the Colombia government does not want to admit they exist).

Map from El Espectador

3. The FARC may not be as united as one might think

The dismobilization experience of the AUC has provided ample evidence that factions of a national-level group can assess their economic prospects for survival as an independent faction, possibly with an eye to allying themselves with other armed groups participating in illegal activities, and refuse to demobilize. The first Front to state their refusal to do so is the 1st Front, operating in Eastern Colombia:

Although the 1st Front gives ideological justifications for staying in the field, there may well be financial reasons behind its decision. According to El Tiempo’s intelligence sources, the unit currently manages coca crop cultivations — which are abundant in the region — drug laboratories and strategic trafficking routes to Venezuela. Extortion and illegal coltan and gold mining are also mentioned as key revenue streams by other local media sources.

InSight crime further estimates that at least 30 percent of FARC fighters will not subscribe to the peace deal.

4. Uncertainty makes for strange bedfellows, and a power vacuum makes for a good opportunity

In the last two years or so, reports have increasingly indicated alliances between armed groups that would not normally be allied: namely, the FARC with anyone at all, and in particular, the FARC with groups such as the Rastrojos and Urabeños.

As InSight Crime describes it,

[A]ccording to a Semana source, with peace negotiations increasing the likelihood of FARC and ELN demobilization it is probable that the criminal bands want to take over spaces and “illegal economies” controlled by the guerillas. This new threat may have caused “the FARC and ELN to unify” in El Bagre, the source said.

While an ELN-FARC alliance might be seen as the natural outcome of competitors whose main point of difference is territorial rather than ideological (both groups are allegedly left-wing guerrilla organizations), there is no similar affinity that would explain reports of (working) alliances between the FARC and the Rastrojos or the FARC and the Urabeños. These functional alliances might provide an additional area of support for FARC factions that do not wish to disarm and demobilize.

Furthermore, uncertainty and shifting territorial controls among armed actors create confusion, tension and clashes in the context of possible disarmament of what has been a major player. For example, in Tumaco, according to InSight Crime,

Sources consulted by La Silla Vacía said local business owners reported they had been visited by BACRIM representatives who informed them the FARC had voluntarily ceded control of certain territories to BACRIM actors.

However, other reports suggest that recent turf disputes between the BACRIM and the FARC resulted in violent clashes in Nariño that led to the displacement of hundreds of people earlier this year. Moreover, La Silla Vacía writes that a series of apparent assassinations in recent months points to the possibility of a local power struggle between the two groups.

The article continues to note that,

BACRIM groups are seeking to take over criminal economies that the FARC will presumably leave behind if and when the guerrilla group and the government reach a final peace accord. Such a development could complicate the establishment of the concentration zones, which many analysts expect to play a key role in the process of demobilizing and reintegrating guerrilla fighters into civilian life.

Under the proposed framework for the zones, a one-kilometer buffer area will separate the FARC, which will assume responsibility for internal security within the zones, from the Colombian military, which will be tasked with guarding the zones’ perimeters. The presence of actors like the BACRIM, which are not bound by the provisions of the peace agreement, could cause frictions between the FARC and the government that may disrupt the demobilization and reintegration process.

5. The periphery was never under all that much control to start with

Eight of the proposed 23 concentration zones (or normalization zones) in which the disarmament is expected to take place are located in border areas.These include places like Tumaco, Nariño, which has a murder rate five times the national average and the presence of just about all of the major armed groups. Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, has long been a FARC stronghold, although less so than San Vicente del Caguán and zona de distensión, an area the size of Switzerland under FARC contril from 1998 until 2002. The outright disengagement in these areas, as with the negotiations with President Pastrana that led to the Caquetá-Meta-Guaviare territory being turned over to the FARC, or the chronic inability of the Colombian State to exercise control or provide services to marginalized border areas, has led to armed groups such as the FARC “essentially replacing the State in terms of health and road infrastructure.”  Not only was there substitution in terms of services; armed groups also have had strict rules for comportment in their territory, and local populations have little choice but to participate in the cultivation of illicit crops, and to some extent, willingly or unwillingly support armed groups.These areas will require significant attention if they are not to descend into violence and terror. (see also: HRW, The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port, 2014)

 So now what?

Colombia’s transition will not go smoothly, and if not conducted carefully, it could result in yet another mutation of what has been a constantly evolving conflict. Some analysts have additional reasons for skepticism as well.  Most importantly, policy makers, analysts and journalists should consider Colombia’s long and difficult history before rolling up the red carpet in Havana and considering it a done deal with no further responsibility to engage to ensure a more stable and secure future.



Refugees, Displaced People Surpass 60 Million For First Time, UNHCR Says 

So basically, the equivalent to the population of France (66 million), Thailand (65 million) or the United Kingdom (60 million) is a refugee. Or, California (39 million) + Florida (20 million) is a refugee. Or, Texas (27 million) + New York (19 million) + Illinois  (12 million). Food for thought.

UNHCR has announced its latest figures: 65.3 million forcibly displaced, including 21.3 million refugees. Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world at 2.5 million, followed by Pakistan with 1.6 million, and Lebanon with 1.1 million. This stands in sharp contrast to the European countries, which collectively have taken in around 1.3 million.

Read more here


Daily chart: Europe’s migrant crisis in numbers (Economist)

SINCE the summer of 2014, Europe has been struck with its worst refugee crisis since the second world war. Millions have fled their war-ravaged homelands in search of safety, causing political turmoil in a continent still recovering from economic disasters. Below is our interactive guide to the numbers behind the crisis.

See the infographic here



Aid agencies are not getting their workers proper visas and that’s dangerous (The Guardian)

In an era of doing business differently, reviewing the organisational practices that have become entrenched in INGO work might not be the stuff of world humanitarian summits but goes to the heart of practising what we preach. A first start would be clearer organisational guidelines that set out rights and responsibilities for staff regarding work permits so people know what to expect before they apply for a job including options if permits are denied or cancelled. Secondly, INGOs can use collective avenues such as NGO forums to discuss these issues with host governments and set in place agreements that were noted by the former HR manager above as very often lacking. Finally the wider humanitarian community including donors may need to balance the additional costs of taxation, social security and other insurances against the potential lost revenue to host governments and face up to the possible increased cost of doing business according to immigration regulations.

Read the full article

Australia: liable for criminal prosecution?

It should be noted that while Australia’s policies might be among the more egregious, few Western countries have clean hands when it comes to treatment of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees.

The United Nations has found that Australia’s immigration detention regime breaches international law, amounting to arbitrary and indefinite detention, and that men, women and children are held in violent and dangerous conditions.

One asylum seeker was murdered by guards on Manus Island, while another died because there were no appropriate antibiotics to treat infection.

On Nauru, asylum seekers and refugees are regularly physically and sexually assaulted, and say they are frightened to complain because of a culture of impunity on the island. At least 29 cases of rape and sexual assault – including against children – have been reported to Nauru police, but there have been no arrests or charges laid.

Several arms of the UN have repeatedly condemned Australia’s offshore regime, including the UN high commissioner for human rights, the UN committee against torture, the UN special rapporteur on torture, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, and the UN high commissioner for refugees.

Continue reading Australia: liable for criminal prosecution?