From an influx of Central American minors to concerns about ISIL and Ebola, the public image of the U.S.-Mexico border has taken a beating in recent weeks. Fortunately, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson rebutted some of the most common misperceptions in an important speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC yesterday.
While heart-rending images of unaccompanied children in detention centers remain vivid in our collective memory, Johnson made clear that the number of migrants is dramatically lower than it was when the surge began several months ago. As his deputy secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said at a separate event at NDN last month, ultimate victory requires addressing the root causes of migration—namely, serious insecurity in the Northern Triangle of Central America—but at least the numbers are moving in the right direction. Johnson also discredited claims that four terrorists had crossed the border, and said that the government is intensifying efforts to protect U.S. citizens from Ebola.
In addition to dispelling these fears, Johnson declared a commitment to “more transparency about our border security,” delivering a thorough review of the huge investments made over the last 15 years in the Border Patrol, which has grown to become one of the largest agencies of the U.S. government (within the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security). Illegal migration peaked in 2000, with 1.6 million apprehensions that year, but has dramatically declined since then to around 400,000 apprehensions a year in recent years—a trend that Johnson credited in part to economic conditions in both the U.S. and Mexico, but also in large measure to the “deterrent factor” of border security.
In an incident that may have escaped notice internationally, three taxi drivers were shot to death recently in Santana do Livramento, a small Brazilian town on the border with Rivera, Uruguay. The incident deeply frightened many in the region and drew heightened attention when, just 48 hours later, three more drivers were shot in Porto Alegre—a southern Brazilian city about 300 miles from the border.
Santana do Livramento and Rivera are both known for their tranquility, as well as the easy walk across the border with little risk of being stopped by authorities. The police quickly denied a connection to organized crime—a claim confirmed when 21-year-old Lucas Barcelos Silva, a disgruntled former member of the Brazilian army with a criminal record, confessed to all six killings, claiming that he was angry about his unemployment. In 2010, he was dismissed from the Brazilian Army due to “lack of discipline and erratic behavior,” and has several robberies on his record.
Although the homicides were unrelated to organized crime, they renewed concerns about border control in Brazil and Uruguay. According to the Civil Police of Rio Grande do Sul, Silva used a .22 pistol—a semi-automatic weapon banned in Brazil since 1997 that is common in Uruguay and Argentina. Silva testified that the pistol came from a 15-year-old friend in Santana do Livramento, who likely acquired it in Uruguay or Argentina and smuggled it across the border.
A lack of border security personnel makes Brazil’s approximately 10,625 miles of border especially porous to drug and weapons smuggling and human trafficking. The Brazilian Federal Police employs only 900 agents to monitor its border with eight countries. By comparison, the United States employs approximately 21,400 border patrol agents to control its 1,969-mile border with Mexico and 5,525-mile border with Canada. Making matters worse is the fact that officers on the Brazil-Uruguay border often pass over locals in searches to avoid holding up commuter traffic.
In a public hearing Tuesday before the Financial Supervisory Commission in the Chamber of Deputies, Brazilian Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo announced that the country will double the number of security personnel on its borders by 2014. The strategy will focus on increasing the police presence along the Bolivian, Colombian and Peruvian borders, with the exact number of federal police and military personnel to be confirmed.
The move represents an effort to stem the flow of illegal arms and drugs that have helped lead to increasing violence along Brazil’s 16,000-kilometer (9,942-mile) border, which is five times longer than the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Even though Brazil is now the world's second largest cocaine consumer, many of the drugs entering the country are then smuggled beyond Brazil. According to the 2012 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, drugs from Brazil are commonly moved on to Africa (mostly western and southern Africa) and shipped to Europe.
Minister Cardozo also responded to concerns about a recent wave of violence in São Paulo’s favelas due to a growing conflict between the police and a gang known as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital—PCC), and stressed the importance of both federal and state governments working together.
This year is already proving that it will be an exciting one for news. Take the U.S. elections, for starters. The presidential election, as it's been said by at least one GOP nominee, represents a battle for nothing less than America’s soul.
As for Latin America, what should we expect to make headlines?
Before ticking off possible headlines, it’s important to note the substantial—and frustrating—distinction between what should be covered and what will likely be covered. There are so many issues that never make it to (online) print or broadcast, given the tough competition for airtime and eyeballs.
Here are my top-10 most anticipated stories:
10) Health of Hugo Chávez: There will be many reports well-timed with Venezuela’s election cycle—Venezuelans go to the polls in October—that cite “well-placed, unnamed” sources claiming President Hugo Chávez is healthier than ever after his surgery last summer in Cuba to remove a cancerous abscess. These reports will appear within days of other stories that cite other unnamed sources professing to know the awful truth of just how horribly sick Chávez is and how he is trying to hide his fatal illness. Both stories will include hypotheticals (and wishful thinking) on the future direction of chavismo and bolivarianismo when Chávez ultimately leaves power, one way or another.
After waiting over 10 years, a long-delayed bilateral security perimeter agreement is supposed to mitigate border delays and security fiascos at border crossings between Canada and the United States. Instead, Canadian critics of the Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan announced last month in Washington DC contend that their personal data will be shared with U.S. officials and that Washington will dictate the harmonization of security rules and regulations.
At their December meeting, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama signed two action plans—one on security and economic competitiveness, the other on regulatory cooperation—under a “Beyond the Border” umbrella agreement designed to facilitate two-way trade and combat terrorism. The move was widely celebrated by Canadian manufacturers who complained about long delays at the border in the heightened, post-9/11 discussion of national security. Those delays have crippled trade with the U.S., Canada’s largest trading partner.
However, pressed by time and because of jurisdictional entanglements, both countries had to settle for a less ambitious accord. A global border deal is likely three years away. In the meantime, numerous pilot projects will test the will, patience and feasibility of integrating policies and procedures to speed the entry of goods, services and people at border crossings.
There are complications. The two legal systems don’t mesh perfectly; their approaches and priorities are different. For Canadians, a border deal is mostly for economic reasons, says Prof. Christian Leuprecht, an expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. For Americans, it’s about security.
Republican frontrunners took to their podiums last night for the second televised debate, where a discussion on immigration reform and border security featured prominently. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s debut in the GOP race was rare opportunity for guest-moderator and Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart to press candidates on their views on immigration, with a focus on the undocumented population.
Gov. Perry, who currently leads the race despite announcing his candidacy for president less than a month ago, stirred things up with his criticism of President Barack Obama’s immigration speech in May. "For the President of the United States to go to El Paso, Texas, and say the border is safer than it’s ever been,” said Gov. Perry, “either he has some of the poorest intel in the history of this country or he was an abject liar to the American people."
Gov. Perry’s calls for more border agents were echoed by many of the other candidates, including Herman Cain and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, currently second place in the polls, pushed for continued construction of the fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Romney also stressed the need to minimize the economic incentive, what he calls the “magnet,” that attracts undocumented immigrants to the United States.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, focused instead on legal immigrants’ contribution to the economy and American competitiveness. “Immigration has made this country the dynamic country it continues to be,” said Santorum, whose parent emigrated from Italy, “so we should not have a debate on how we don’t want people to come to this country.
In defiance of mounting international pressure, Nicaragua again refused to withdraw troops from the island of Calero as its border dispute with Costa Rica entered a fourth week. After the Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council voted 22-2 on Saturday night to recommend removal of all forces from Calero, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused the Permanent Council of bias and threatened to withdraw from the OAS unilaterally.
The border argument ignited on October 21 when Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of dumping sediment from dredging operations onto the islet that it claims as sovereign territory. Nicaragua continued the operations, citing a need to combat drug trafficking, which resulted in Costa Rica issuing a formal appeal to the OAS two weeks ago to stop the incursion. Nicaragua countered by demanding that Costa Rica withdraw its forces from the same territory; Costa Rica does not maintain a military.
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has met with the presidents and foreign ministers of both nations. Shortly after, he issued a set of recommendations, the most notable of which called for the removal of armed forces from “an area where they could generate tension”—a carefully-worded salvo leveled at Nicaragua.
The Permanent Council vote on Saturday endorsed Insulza’s recommendations with only Nicaragua and Venezuela opposing the measure. In light of Ortega’s threat, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla warned that she would involve the UN Security Council if necessary.
A border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua has escalated from finger-pointing to formal diplomatic protesting to its latest development: Costa Rica will issue an appeal this week to the Organization of American States demanding Nicaragua withdraw troops from alleged Costa Rican territory.
The land in question, along northeastern Costa Rica and southeastern Nicaragua, is Calero—an island in the middle of the San Juan River, which is the body of water that forms the shared border. Costa Rica claims Calero as sovereign land, and Security Minister José María Tijerino confirmed that the Nicaraguan flag and armed forces were spotted there during a recent flyover operation. Members of Costa Rica’s Fuerza Pública police force were dispatched to the Refugio Nacional Barra del Colorado in the northeastern area of the country. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega's government has flatly denied that any foreign territory was invaded.
Nicaraguan forces were first seen two weeks ago in Calero engaging in dredging: an environmental practice of gathering sediment and disposing of it elsewhere. Gen. Julio Aviles, Nicaragua’s army chief of staff, claimed the dredging was ordered in an effort to combat drug trafficking—and that it was done on Nicaraguan soil. San José alleged that Managua was not only causing environmental damage, but attempting to change the course of the San Juan River and move the border.
Minister Tijerino affirmed that Costa Rica does not seek military confrontation with Nicaragua, and petitioned his citizens to avoid expressing anti-Nicaraguan sentiments.