The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

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CEPR Research Assistant Brett Heinz published the following article at Current Affairs:

The nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd have reignited debates over US policing. But the state response to the protests has also raised the question of where exactly “domestic” law enforcement stops and starts. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), an organization that describes its mission as “safeguard[ing] America’s borders,” has stated that it is deploying its officers around the country to help contain the protests. They are among officials from a wide variety of agencies serving as police on the streets of Washington, DC right now, many of whom have no identifying insignia at all. Though the CBP’s mandate is to police borders, it has the authority to conduct operations anywhere within 100 miles of a US border, an area encompassing about two-thirds of the American population. But even that can’t explain why the CBP recently flew a MQ-9 Reaper drone, designed for military use, to spy on Minneapolis, a city 250 miles from the nearest border.

The lines between the different roles of the US security state are thin. Local police receive surplus military equipment from the Pentagon, and often enforce immigration laws on behalf of immigration authorities. Active duty military, on the other hand, are deployed to the US border and downtown Washington, DC. These muddled roles help to illustrate how police brutality is not just a serious issue within the United States, but also one that the US projects on our borders and all over the world. 

Nowhere is this exchange more visible than in Latin America, a region that has long been treated by the US government as a guinea pig for testing out policy. From the Cold War, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Terror, the US has encouraged the development of aggressive and militarized law enforcement forces throughout Latin America, an authoritarian set of policies which eventually echoes back to the US and leads to further militarization of our own police.

Read the rest at Current Affairs.

CEPR Research Assistant Brett Heinz published the following article at Current Affairs:

The nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd have reignited debates over US policing. But the state response to the protests has also raised the question of where exactly “domestic” law enforcement stops and starts. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), an organization that describes its mission as “safeguard[ing] America’s borders,” has stated that it is deploying its officers around the country to help contain the protests. They are among officials from a wide variety of agencies serving as police on the streets of Washington, DC right now, many of whom have no identifying insignia at all. Though the CBP’s mandate is to police borders, it has the authority to conduct operations anywhere within 100 miles of a US border, an area encompassing about two-thirds of the American population. But even that can’t explain why the CBP recently flew a MQ-9 Reaper drone, designed for military use, to spy on Minneapolis, a city 250 miles from the nearest border.

The lines between the different roles of the US security state are thin. Local police receive surplus military equipment from the Pentagon, and often enforce immigration laws on behalf of immigration authorities. Active duty military, on the other hand, are deployed to the US border and downtown Washington, DC. These muddled roles help to illustrate how police brutality is not just a serious issue within the United States, but also one that the US projects on our borders and all over the world. 

Nowhere is this exchange more visible than in Latin America, a region that has long been treated by the US government as a guinea pig for testing out policy. From the Cold War, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Terror, the US has encouraged the development of aggressive and militarized law enforcement forces throughout Latin America, an authoritarian set of policies which eventually echoes back to the US and leads to further militarization of our own police.

Read the rest at Current Affairs.

On May 31, hundreds of people in Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, joined protesters around the world in marching against police brutality. While the protest was in solidarity with the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the US following the killing of George Floyd, Brazilian protesters were marching against their own police brutality problem as well. The state of Rio de Janeiro has one of the highest rates of police violence on Earth, with an average of five killings of civilians each day during the first four months of this year. What is happening in Rio illustrates how a combination of anti-Black racism, militarized law enforcement, and a lack of social services leads to tragic levels of state violence. 

Police killings in the state of Rio de Janeiro — which take place primarily in the Rio metropolitan area — have been progressively rising since 2014, but in 2019 grew a stunning 18 percent to reach a record high of 1,810; a far greater amount than the entire US. This April, more than a third of all homicide deaths in Rio state were at the hands of law enforcement. The vast majority of these killings were of Black men.

These levels of violence are nearly unprecedented anywhere in the world. In the United States, the highest per capita level of police killings in a major city where data has been reported is in St. Louis, Missouri, where an average of 18 people per million are killed by the police every year. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, that rate for 2019 was 105 per million people. Though US rates of police killings are drastically higher than in other developed countries, very few nations have reported the levels of violence seen in Rio.

Though the magnitude of the problem may be different, many of the conditions that have led to this tragic level of state violence would likely be familiar to Black communities in the United States. It’s worth noting that the state of Rio de Janeiro is home to the second-largest number of Afro-Brazilians in the country. 

Brazil’s multiracial nature has a complex history behind it. As the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw the slave trade, Brazil has a large Black population — estimated at around 15 million people, with even more identifying as racially mixed — that has been subject to a long a history of oppression and discrimination. Both the US and Brazil share a disturbing legacy of anti-Black racism which is still institutionally pervasive. De facto racial segregation is still a major issue in the city of Rio. Afro-Brazilians make up about 11.5 percent of the state of Rio, but constitute over 75 percent of those killed by police. As in the US, systemic racism and anti-Blackness play an unmistakable role in police violence.

Another issue the two nations share in common is police militarization. In the US, this has been a gradual process spanning many decades; in Brazil, it has been more abrupt. After Brazil emerged from a 19-year dictatorship, its new 1988 constitution democratized many of the nation’s institutions, but left law enforcement institutions tied closely to the military largely unchanged

The United States has assisted Brazilian police in militarizing through its long history of providing police training and support in Latin America, even for dictatorships like in mid-20th century Brazil. In 1969, the year a military edict put all Brazilian police under control of the army, the number of Brazilian police trained in the US tripled from the year prior.

While police forces in the US and Brazil have expanded rapidly over time, both nations also suffer from weak welfare states. Among some of the world’s most unequal nations, Brazil and the US both suffer from underinvestment in anti-poverty efforts, housing, education, and many more areas of social expenditure that are arguably at least as important as law enforcement itself in reducing crime.  Anti-poverty programs expanded significantly under the left-leaning Workers’ Party governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff (2003–2016), but under the short-lived Michel Temer government (2016–2019) and the far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro (2019–present), these programs have been progressively curtailed. 

Finally, though police brutality has been a major issue for far longer than any one administration, it’s worth noting how similar the responses of both nations’ current leaders have been. US president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (who previously served as a representative for the state of Rio de Janeiro) are both right-wing populists with “tough on crime” stances that translate into support for unaccountable law enforcement. Trump often makes remarks dismissing police violence, such as encouraging the police “not to be too nice” to people they’re arresting, while Bolsonaro’s statements go even further, promising to “give the police carte blanche to kill” and stating that “police that kill thugs will be decorated.” While police brutality has only risen slightly under Trump, annual police killings in Rio de Janeiro have more than doubled since Bolsonaro took office.

Conditions in Brazil and the United States are not identical, and the state of Rio de Janeiro suffers from extreme levels of police violence seen in few other parts of the world. But the parallels between the two are hard to ignore. From Rio de Janeiro to Minneapolis, a toxic combination of police militarization, anti-Black racism, and underfunded social services have generated disturbing levels of police brutality, an issue which heads of state either condone or exacerbate. With the world in uproar over the death of George Floyd and many others, the importance of international solidarity in the fight against these problems becomes clearer than ever.

On May 31, hundreds of people in Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, joined protesters around the world in marching against police brutality. While the protest was in solidarity with the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the US following the killing of George Floyd, Brazilian protesters were marching against their own police brutality problem as well. The state of Rio de Janeiro has one of the highest rates of police violence on Earth, with an average of five killings of civilians each day during the first four months of this year. What is happening in Rio illustrates how a combination of anti-Black racism, militarized law enforcement, and a lack of social services leads to tragic levels of state violence. 

Police killings in the state of Rio de Janeiro — which take place primarily in the Rio metropolitan area — have been progressively rising since 2014, but in 2019 grew a stunning 18 percent to reach a record high of 1,810; a far greater amount than the entire US. This April, more than a third of all homicide deaths in Rio state were at the hands of law enforcement. The vast majority of these killings were of Black men.

These levels of violence are nearly unprecedented anywhere in the world. In the United States, the highest per capita level of police killings in a major city where data has been reported is in St. Louis, Missouri, where an average of 18 people per million are killed by the police every year. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, that rate for 2019 was 105 per million people. Though US rates of police killings are drastically higher than in other developed countries, very few nations have reported the levels of violence seen in Rio.

Though the magnitude of the problem may be different, many of the conditions that have led to this tragic level of state violence would likely be familiar to Black communities in the United States. It’s worth noting that the state of Rio de Janeiro is home to the second-largest number of Afro-Brazilians in the country. 

Brazil’s multiracial nature has a complex history behind it. As the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw the slave trade, Brazil has a large Black population — estimated at around 15 million people, with even more identifying as racially mixed — that has been subject to a long a history of oppression and discrimination. Both the US and Brazil share a disturbing legacy of anti-Black racism which is still institutionally pervasive. De facto racial segregation is still a major issue in the city of Rio. Afro-Brazilians make up about 11.5 percent of the state of Rio, but constitute over 75 percent of those killed by police. As in the US, systemic racism and anti-Blackness play an unmistakable role in police violence.

Another issue the two nations share in common is police militarization. In the US, this has been a gradual process spanning many decades; in Brazil, it has been more abrupt. After Brazil emerged from a 19-year dictatorship, its new 1988 constitution democratized many of the nation’s institutions, but left law enforcement institutions tied closely to the military largely unchanged

The United States has assisted Brazilian police in militarizing through its long history of providing police training and support in Latin America, even for dictatorships like in mid-20th century Brazil. In 1969, the year a military edict put all Brazilian police under control of the army, the number of Brazilian police trained in the US tripled from the year prior.

While police forces in the US and Brazil have expanded rapidly over time, both nations also suffer from weak welfare states. Among some of the world’s most unequal nations, Brazil and the US both suffer from underinvestment in anti-poverty efforts, housing, education, and many more areas of social expenditure that are arguably at least as important as law enforcement itself in reducing crime.  Anti-poverty programs expanded significantly under the left-leaning Workers’ Party governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff (2003–2016), but under the short-lived Michel Temer government (2016–2019) and the far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro (2019–present), these programs have been progressively curtailed. 

Finally, though police brutality has been a major issue for far longer than any one administration, it’s worth noting how similar the responses of both nations’ current leaders have been. US president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (who previously served as a representative for the state of Rio de Janeiro) are both right-wing populists with “tough on crime” stances that translate into support for unaccountable law enforcement. Trump often makes remarks dismissing police violence, such as encouraging the police “not to be too nice” to people they’re arresting, while Bolsonaro’s statements go even further, promising to “give the police carte blanche to kill” and stating that “police that kill thugs will be decorated.” While police brutality has only risen slightly under Trump, annual police killings in Rio de Janeiro have more than doubled since Bolsonaro took office.

Conditions in Brazil and the United States are not identical, and the state of Rio de Janeiro suffers from extreme levels of police violence seen in few other parts of the world. But the parallels between the two are hard to ignore. From Rio de Janeiro to Minneapolis, a toxic combination of police militarization, anti-Black racism, and underfunded social services have generated disturbing levels of police brutality, an issue which heads of state either condone or exacerbate. With the world in uproar over the death of George Floyd and many others, the importance of international solidarity in the fight against these problems becomes clearer than ever.

On April 29, Bolivia’s de facto president, Jeanine Áñez, announced that the country would be moving into a “dynamic quarantine” phase on May 11. This decision was intended to alleviate the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic by loosening lockdown restrictions. However, the most heavily affected areas ― located primarily in poor communities ― were ordered to remain in full lockdown. This meant that many of those in greatest need of getting out and earning money were still unable to do so; emergency subsidies were insufficient and unevenly distributed, and many have been left on the verge of starvation, according to on-the-ground accounts. On June 1, the de facto government announced that it had lifted most of the remaining lockdown restrictions, and that it was handing over the responsibility for quarantine management to local authorities. This is a significant move in that it implies that the pandemic no longer constitutes a national emergency.

Jeanine Áñez has faced harsh national and international criticism for using the pandemic as a way of consolidating power and repressing political rivals. Protesters in Cochabamba have accused the government of leaving people without the means to feed their families. On May 10, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples sent an open letter to Áñez calling on her to provide food supplies to the indigenous communities most affected by shortages. A week and a half later, in the midst of these appeals, Bolivia’s health minister was arrested in a corruption scandal in which he is accused of paying $4.7 million to acquire COVID-19 ventilators for a contract believed to be worth $1.2 million. The minister, Marcelo Navajas, had only assumed the post six weeks before. Protests have also recently broken out in El Alto and in Cochabamba demanding new elections and an end to the privatization of natural resources and of other state companies.

The Áñez government’s response to COVID-19 has involved strict military enforcement of restrictions on movement and a series of aggressive containment measures. Meanwhile, the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to mount a full-fledged offensive against its political rivals.

The early lockdown has meant that Bolivia appears not to have experienced the rapid spread of the virus seen in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Peru, or Ecuador. As of June 3, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center estimated Bolivia to have 10,531 confirmed cases and 343 deaths from the virus, although these numbers undoubtedly underrepresent the actual situation, given low testing rates. If in fact the government has had success in stemming the pandemic’s spread, it will have come at a high social cost, as we shall see.

Supreme Decree 4200 and Flagrant Violations of Freedom of Expression and Persecution of Political Rivals

The Bolivian government has used the pandemic as a pretext to impose decrees that criminalize dissent and severely curtail press freedom. Though international pressure forced the government to rescind some of the decrees’ most egregious measures, this was not until after a short period of harsh repression.

On April 30, The Washington Post reported that “a striking example of a crackdown during the pandemic comes from Bolivia,” and noted “the government has arrested dozens of opponents under a new decree passed last month.” José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Program, also condemned the decree, Tweeting: “The Bolivian government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect.’”

The Post and Vivanco were both referring to Supreme Decree 4200, which the de facto government passed on March 25. Article 13.2 of this decree states: “individuals who incite non-compliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainly to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.” Those convicted of violating the decree can receive sentences of up to 10 years in prison. By mid-April, some 67 people had already been arrested for allegedly violating the decree, and, according to de facto interior minister Arturo Murillo, 37 people have already been tried, convicted, and sentenced for supposed involvement in “destabilization and disinformation movements.”

These measures drew criticism from a wide array of national and international actors, including Bolivian social organizations; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR); Freedom House; and US Congressman Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On May 7, just days after World Press Freedom Day, the de facto government announced another law intended to extend the scope of Supreme Decree 4200. Decree 4231 outlaws “disinformation” in print or through “artistic media.” On May 12, the IACHR sent a strongly worded warning to the Áñez government against the use of criminal law to police public expression. The most problematic provisions of Decree 4231 were removed on May 14.

Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick said:

The COVID-19 pandemic must be taken seriously, but vague regulations that criminalize ‘disinformation’ make Bolivia’s interim government look more concerned about its public image than about an effective response to the crisis. These overly broad provisions that criminalize speech open up the dangerous possibility of abuse against journalists reporting vital information and facts.

Following intense international pressure, Bolivia’s de facto government modified some of the most heavily criticized clauses of the decree in mid-May.

Áñez Overrules Bill that Would Have Ensured New Elections Within 90 Days

Bolivia’s 2020 snap elections, originally scheduled to take place May 3, were postponed indefinitely on March 22 by the country’s electoral authority as a result of the pandemic. Over a month later, former president Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) shepherded a bill through the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies obliging the de facto government to organize general elections before August 2, 2020. The law, seeking to ensure that new elections are held within the constitutional time limits for an interim presidency, was ratified in an extraordinary session in Bolivia’s senate on April 30.

As expected, Áñez vehemently opposed the bill, claiming that elections should be postponed until the pandemic has passed, and Tweeting: “Any damage to people’s health and lives caused by the folly of calling elections will be the responsibility of the MAS.” Then she went further and announced that the pandemic justified postponing the elections indefinitely.

Deciding how to handle voting during a pandemic is inherently difficult, but indefinite postponement had raised fears that the post-coup administration had little interest in giving up power, especially considering the strong lead that MAS presidential candidate and former economy minister Luis Arce has had in the polls over other candidates, including Áñez herself. The agreement reached between TSE and key political parties on June 2, states that elections will be held on September 6; this can be seen as a positive step towards easing current political tensions in Boliva.

Áñez’s Border Crisis: Closing Land Borders to Bolivian Nationals

The Áñez regime has claimed that MAS and other political rivals, including 2019 opposition presidential candidate Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana, are undermining its response to the pandemic, and attempting to politicize the country’s dire situation.

In the same vein, Áñez’s director of migration services, Marcel Rivas, blamed the MAS for social turmoil resulting from the government’s refusal to allow Bolivians stranded on the Chilean border to reenter the country, claiming “MAS sought to break the quarantine to generate riots and chaos.” This followed an incident during the first week of April in which several hundred Bolivian nationals trying to return to Bolivia clashed with armed forces near the Bolivian town of Pisiga. The camps were heavily militarized. Many have criticized Áñez for allowing in Bolivians fortunate enough to travel by air, but blocking those coming by land, including poorer Bolivian migrants trying to return from Chile.

Evelyn Matthei, mayor of the Chilean municipality of Providencia, made a video appeal to Áñez on April 28 for the 400 Bolivians stranded on the Chilean side of the border to be allowed to return to Bolivia. Matthei pledged to meet the necessary conditions, including provision of food and shelter, to allow these Bolivians to fulfill quarantine requirements in government camps in Chile before being allowed to travel within Bolivia. On May 1, in the face of growing international pressure, Áñez finally allowed these Bolivians to return to their country.

The de facto government’s actions preventing Bolivians from returning home violated a number of national and international laws. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (and former president of Chile) Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on April 15 reminding Bolivia’s de facto president of her obligation to allow Bolivian citizens back into their own country: “Under international law, everyone has the right to return to their home country ― even during a pandemic.” Bachelet went on to say: “When migrants wish to return home voluntarily, Governments have an obligation to receive their own nationals, and to ensure that they have access to health care and other rights.”

The International Organization for Migration had been assisting other stranded Bolivians who were being held at the Tata Santiago quarantine camp in Pisiga, providing food and shelter in the absence of adequate support from Áñez’s government.

Blocking MAS Social Organizations from Providing Food Packages for Those Most in Need

During the last week of April, the military prevented MAS senate candidate Andrónico Rodríguez from distributing food in Cochabamba, accusing him of breaching government restrictions on political gatherings. Rodríguez declared that low-income Bolivians urgently need more access to food, as had Zenón Pizarro, mayor of Oruro, the first city in Bolivia to be put under lockdown. Pizarro had called for more flexible isolation measures, warning that hunger is a serious risk. With many people left without access to their savings or any kind of support, then “if the virus doesn’t kill them, hunger will,” Pizarro stated.

The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), Bolivia’s main labor union federation, has also decried that around 80 percent of the population, largely informal workers and the unemployed, are not eligible for the subsidies the de facto government has offered to address the economic effects of the quarantine. COB leader Juan Carlos Huarachi proposed that the eight million people left without protection be paid 50 percent of the minimum wage for the next six months. Yet on April 29, the government suspended a one-off cash transfer (Bono Universal) intended to offer a lifeline to those on the brink of starvation, saying lines outside the banks were too long. This left many people without income or access to other support during the pandemic.

Territorial Isolation Policies in Chapare, Cochabamba

In some cases, the de facto government has opted for more sweeping and regionally focused repression, as in Chapare. This rural province in the department of Cochabamba has been a bastion of support for ousted president Evo Morales. It has also been the prime target for the Áñez government‘s anti-narcotics policy involving the criminalization of peasant coca growers. Áñez’s approach is reversing years of a successful counternarcotic strategy under Morales that had offered viable alternatives for small-scale coca growers to enter the formal economy. Under Áñez, these campesinos have been criminalized, labeled “narco-terrorists,” and blocked from selling certain legal and licensed coca-based goods such as shampoos, sweets, and creams on the local market. During the lockdown, security forces have arrested and detained farmers on broad, poorly defined charges, mostly tied to narcotrafficking. So far, little evidence has been provided to sustain such claims.

The US government has supported Añez’s counternarcotics policies and has kept silent about flagrant human rights violations carried out by her government. De facto interior minister Arturo Murillo, the key architect of the US-led anti-narcotics strategy, is publicly vocal about the support he has from the United States government.

On May 6, the human rights ombudsman of Cochabamba, Nelsón Cox, denounced that “detainees from the Chapare are singled out for beatings and abuse in prisons in Cochabamba.” The Andean Information Network calls this “the latest chapter in the stigmatization, discrimination and human rights violations against residents of that coca growing region.”

Cochabamba is also home to over 14,000 small fish farms, each holding around 1,500 fish. The Áñez government has restricted these farmers’ access to any fuel ― under the pretext that this could be used to fabricate cocaine ― putting the fish farms in jeopardy. Already some 11 million fish, around half the existing fish stock, have perished from lack of fuel needed to oxygenate pools. This is a tragic loss of a much-needed food stock. Observers point out that these fish could have supported campesino families during the lockdown.

Boomerang Accusations: Áñez, Not Her Political Rivals, Is Politicizing the Crisis

The widely held belief that the government’s quarantine restrictions have been unequally applied has been fueled by public scandals revealing the double standard for Áñez and other senior officials. Just in the first few weeks of May, it was revealed that Áñez had used a military plane to transport a family friend to a birthday party. During the same period, a government minister came under fire for using a state aircraft to transport a former beauty queen between cities.

Earlier in May, Áñez invited Bolivians to pray and fast together to combat COVID-19, and she has coordinated helicopter flights so that Catholic bishops can bless the Bolivian population from the sky. Áñez seems to have learned few lessons since she first marched into the Presidential Palace, having been sworn in without the required quorum in the Senate, to announce that the “Bible had returned to the Palace.” Her de facto government has repeatedly come under fire for its overtly racist policies, sparking a December 2019 OAS resolution in which 18 member states denounced its recurrent and overtly racist actions. Áñez’s response to the pandemic signals a continued uphill struggle for recognition of the basic rights of Bolivia’s massive indigenous population.

Ironically, Áñez claims that opposition to her government has politicized the pandemic, but the evidence suggests that it is Áñez’s de facto government that has been most guilty of extracting political gains ― including by repressing its critics ― in the context of the current health crisis. Beyond the controversial cultural and religious dimensions of the government’s response, there are deeper implications for civil and political rights. Áñez’s de facto government appears to be taking advantage of political opportunities afforded by COVID-19 to try to hold on to power at all costs.

On April 29, Bolivia’s de facto president, Jeanine Áñez, announced that the country would be moving into a “dynamic quarantine” phase on May 11. This decision was intended to alleviate the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic by loosening lockdown restrictions. However, the most heavily affected areas ― located primarily in poor communities ― were ordered to remain in full lockdown. This meant that many of those in greatest need of getting out and earning money were still unable to do so; emergency subsidies were insufficient and unevenly distributed, and many have been left on the verge of starvation, according to on-the-ground accounts. On June 1, the de facto government announced that it had lifted most of the remaining lockdown restrictions, and that it was handing over the responsibility for quarantine management to local authorities. This is a significant move in that it implies that the pandemic no longer constitutes a national emergency.

Jeanine Áñez has faced harsh national and international criticism for using the pandemic as a way of consolidating power and repressing political rivals. Protesters in Cochabamba have accused the government of leaving people without the means to feed their families. On May 10, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples sent an open letter to Áñez calling on her to provide food supplies to the indigenous communities most affected by shortages. A week and a half later, in the midst of these appeals, Bolivia’s health minister was arrested in a corruption scandal in which he is accused of paying $4.7 million to acquire COVID-19 ventilators for a contract believed to be worth $1.2 million. The minister, Marcelo Navajas, had only assumed the post six weeks before. Protests have also recently broken out in El Alto and in Cochabamba demanding new elections and an end to the privatization of natural resources and of other state companies.

The Áñez government’s response to COVID-19 has involved strict military enforcement of restrictions on movement and a series of aggressive containment measures. Meanwhile, the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to mount a full-fledged offensive against its political rivals.

The early lockdown has meant that Bolivia appears not to have experienced the rapid spread of the virus seen in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Peru, or Ecuador. As of June 3, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center estimated Bolivia to have 10,531 confirmed cases and 343 deaths from the virus, although these numbers undoubtedly underrepresent the actual situation, given low testing rates. If in fact the government has had success in stemming the pandemic’s spread, it will have come at a high social cost, as we shall see.

Supreme Decree 4200 and Flagrant Violations of Freedom of Expression and Persecution of Political Rivals

The Bolivian government has used the pandemic as a pretext to impose decrees that criminalize dissent and severely curtail press freedom. Though international pressure forced the government to rescind some of the decrees’ most egregious measures, this was not until after a short period of harsh repression.

On April 30, The Washington Post reported that “a striking example of a crackdown during the pandemic comes from Bolivia,” and noted “the government has arrested dozens of opponents under a new decree passed last month.” José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Program, also condemned the decree, Tweeting: “The Bolivian government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect.’”

The Post and Vivanco were both referring to Supreme Decree 4200, which the de facto government passed on March 25. Article 13.2 of this decree states: “individuals who incite non-compliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainly to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.” Those convicted of violating the decree can receive sentences of up to 10 years in prison. By mid-April, some 67 people had already been arrested for allegedly violating the decree, and, according to de facto interior minister Arturo Murillo, 37 people have already been tried, convicted, and sentenced for supposed involvement in “destabilization and disinformation movements.”

These measures drew criticism from a wide array of national and international actors, including Bolivian social organizations; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR); Freedom House; and US Congressman Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On May 7, just days after World Press Freedom Day, the de facto government announced another law intended to extend the scope of Supreme Decree 4200. Decree 4231 outlaws “disinformation” in print or through “artistic media.” On May 12, the IACHR sent a strongly worded warning to the Áñez government against the use of criminal law to police public expression. The most problematic provisions of Decree 4231 were removed on May 14.

Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick said:

The COVID-19 pandemic must be taken seriously, but vague regulations that criminalize ‘disinformation’ make Bolivia’s interim government look more concerned about its public image than about an effective response to the crisis. These overly broad provisions that criminalize speech open up the dangerous possibility of abuse against journalists reporting vital information and facts.

Following intense international pressure, Bolivia’s de facto government modified some of the most heavily criticized clauses of the decree in mid-May.

Áñez Overrules Bill that Would Have Ensured New Elections Within 90 Days

Bolivia’s 2020 snap elections, originally scheduled to take place May 3, were postponed indefinitely on March 22 by the country’s electoral authority as a result of the pandemic. Over a month later, former president Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) shepherded a bill through the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies obliging the de facto government to organize general elections before August 2, 2020. The law, seeking to ensure that new elections are held within the constitutional time limits for an interim presidency, was ratified in an extraordinary session in Bolivia’s senate on April 30.

As expected, Áñez vehemently opposed the bill, claiming that elections should be postponed until the pandemic has passed, and Tweeting: “Any damage to people’s health and lives caused by the folly of calling elections will be the responsibility of the MAS.” Then she went further and announced that the pandemic justified postponing the elections indefinitely.

Deciding how to handle voting during a pandemic is inherently difficult, but indefinite postponement had raised fears that the post-coup administration had little interest in giving up power, especially considering the strong lead that MAS presidential candidate and former economy minister Luis Arce has had in the polls over other candidates, including Áñez herself. The agreement reached between TSE and key political parties on June 2, states that elections will be held on September 6; this can be seen as a positive step towards easing current political tensions in Boliva.

Áñez’s Border Crisis: Closing Land Borders to Bolivian Nationals

The Áñez regime has claimed that MAS and other political rivals, including 2019 opposition presidential candidate Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana, are undermining its response to the pandemic, and attempting to politicize the country’s dire situation.

In the same vein, Áñez’s director of migration services, Marcel Rivas, blamed the MAS for social turmoil resulting from the government’s refusal to allow Bolivians stranded on the Chilean border to reenter the country, claiming “MAS sought to break the quarantine to generate riots and chaos.” This followed an incident during the first week of April in which several hundred Bolivian nationals trying to return to Bolivia clashed with armed forces near the Bolivian town of Pisiga. The camps were heavily militarized. Many have criticized Áñez for allowing in Bolivians fortunate enough to travel by air, but blocking those coming by land, including poorer Bolivian migrants trying to return from Chile.

Evelyn Matthei, mayor of the Chilean municipality of Providencia, made a video appeal to Áñez on April 28 for the 400 Bolivians stranded on the Chilean side of the border to be allowed to return to Bolivia. Matthei pledged to meet the necessary conditions, including provision of food and shelter, to allow these Bolivians to fulfill quarantine requirements in government camps in Chile before being allowed to travel within Bolivia. On May 1, in the face of growing international pressure, Áñez finally allowed these Bolivians to return to their country.

The de facto government’s actions preventing Bolivians from returning home violated a number of national and international laws. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (and former president of Chile) Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on April 15 reminding Bolivia’s de facto president of her obligation to allow Bolivian citizens back into their own country: “Under international law, everyone has the right to return to their home country ― even during a pandemic.” Bachelet went on to say: “When migrants wish to return home voluntarily, Governments have an obligation to receive their own nationals, and to ensure that they have access to health care and other rights.”

The International Organization for Migration had been assisting other stranded Bolivians who were being held at the Tata Santiago quarantine camp in Pisiga, providing food and shelter in the absence of adequate support from Áñez’s government.

Blocking MAS Social Organizations from Providing Food Packages for Those Most in Need

During the last week of April, the military prevented MAS senate candidate Andrónico Rodríguez from distributing food in Cochabamba, accusing him of breaching government restrictions on political gatherings. Rodríguez declared that low-income Bolivians urgently need more access to food, as had Zenón Pizarro, mayor of Oruro, the first city in Bolivia to be put under lockdown. Pizarro had called for more flexible isolation measures, warning that hunger is a serious risk. With many people left without access to their savings or any kind of support, then “if the virus doesn’t kill them, hunger will,” Pizarro stated.

The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), Bolivia’s main labor union federation, has also decried that around 80 percent of the population, largely informal workers and the unemployed, are not eligible for the subsidies the de facto government has offered to address the economic effects of the quarantine. COB leader Juan Carlos Huarachi proposed that the eight million people left without protection be paid 50 percent of the minimum wage for the next six months. Yet on April 29, the government suspended a one-off cash transfer (Bono Universal) intended to offer a lifeline to those on the brink of starvation, saying lines outside the banks were too long. This left many people without income or access to other support during the pandemic.

Territorial Isolation Policies in Chapare, Cochabamba

In some cases, the de facto government has opted for more sweeping and regionally focused repression, as in Chapare. This rural province in the department of Cochabamba has been a bastion of support for ousted president Evo Morales. It has also been the prime target for the Áñez government‘s anti-narcotics policy involving the criminalization of peasant coca growers. Áñez’s approach is reversing years of a successful counternarcotic strategy under Morales that had offered viable alternatives for small-scale coca growers to enter the formal economy. Under Áñez, these campesinos have been criminalized, labeled “narco-terrorists,” and blocked from selling certain legal and licensed coca-based goods such as shampoos, sweets, and creams on the local market. During the lockdown, security forces have arrested and detained farmers on broad, poorly defined charges, mostly tied to narcotrafficking. So far, little evidence has been provided to sustain such claims.

The US government has supported Añez’s counternarcotics policies and has kept silent about flagrant human rights violations carried out by her government. De facto interior minister Arturo Murillo, the key architect of the US-led anti-narcotics strategy, is publicly vocal about the support he has from the United States government.

On May 6, the human rights ombudsman of Cochabamba, Nelsón Cox, denounced that “detainees from the Chapare are singled out for beatings and abuse in prisons in Cochabamba.” The Andean Information Network calls this “the latest chapter in the stigmatization, discrimination and human rights violations against residents of that coca growing region.”

Cochabamba is also home to over 14,000 small fish farms, each holding around 1,500 fish. The Áñez government has restricted these farmers’ access to any fuel ― under the pretext that this could be used to fabricate cocaine ― putting the fish farms in jeopardy. Already some 11 million fish, around half the existing fish stock, have perished from lack of fuel needed to oxygenate pools. This is a tragic loss of a much-needed food stock. Observers point out that these fish could have supported campesino families during the lockdown.

Boomerang Accusations: Áñez, Not Her Political Rivals, Is Politicizing the Crisis

The widely held belief that the government’s quarantine restrictions have been unequally applied has been fueled by public scandals revealing the double standard for Áñez and other senior officials. Just in the first few weeks of May, it was revealed that Áñez had used a military plane to transport a family friend to a birthday party. During the same period, a government minister came under fire for using a state aircraft to transport a former beauty queen between cities.

Earlier in May, Áñez invited Bolivians to pray and fast together to combat COVID-19, and she has coordinated helicopter flights so that Catholic bishops can bless the Bolivian population from the sky. Áñez seems to have learned few lessons since she first marched into the Presidential Palace, having been sworn in without the required quorum in the Senate, to announce that the “Bible had returned to the Palace.” Her de facto government has repeatedly come under fire for its overtly racist policies, sparking a December 2019 OAS resolution in which 18 member states denounced its recurrent and overtly racist actions. Áñez’s response to the pandemic signals a continued uphill struggle for recognition of the basic rights of Bolivia’s massive indigenous population.

Ironically, Áñez claims that opposition to her government has politicized the pandemic, but the evidence suggests that it is Áñez’s de facto government that has been most guilty of extracting political gains ― including by repressing its critics ― in the context of the current health crisis. Beyond the controversial cultural and religious dimensions of the government’s response, there are deeper implications for civil and political rights. Áñez’s de facto government appears to be taking advantage of political opportunities afforded by COVID-19 to try to hold on to power at all costs.

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The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Latin America could be potentially devastating, according to a new Special Report by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The report, based on the available data in mid-April, has estimated a -5.3 percent drop for the region’s GDP growth in 2020 — the largest in the region’s history. If this is the case, ECLAC calculates, 29 million more people would be pushed into poverty and 16 million more into extreme poverty, alongside a dramatic increase in inequality in what is already the most unequal region in the world

In the face of this potential disaster, the authors of the ECLAC report recommend a “basic emergency income” as an anti-poverty measure. The proposal could be a powerful tool for economic empowerment that can help millions survive the recession if paired with other measures, the paper argues.

The damage of the COVID-19 crisis won’t just come from labor disruptions caused by social distancing and lockdowns, but from a number of other Covid-related factors as well. ECLAC estimates that low global demand and crashing commodity prices could reduce the value of exports from Latin America by 15 percent this year. Tourism could drop by 20–30 percent. Declining incomes throughout the world means that remittances from immigrants, a source of $96 billion dollars for the region last year, will shrink 19.3 percent this year, according to World Bank estimates

To prevent a depression and reduce the economic damage, a response to the COVID-19 crisis requires distributing money to large groups of people experiencing a drop in income as quickly and efficiently as possible. In addition, because the Americas lead the world in the percentage of workers who are in “at-risk” informal sectors of the economy, the region’s response can’t exclusively work through employment-based stimulus policies targeted at formal businesses, as these will be less effective at reaching everyone.

The ECLAC report, released May 12, calls on nations in the region to “provid[e] a basic emergency income … equivalent to one poverty line (the per capita cost of acquiring a basic food basket and meeting other basic needs) over the course of six months to the entire population living in poverty in 2020.” ECLAC estimates that direct cash transfers to 215 million people (a bit over a third of Latin America’s population) would cost 2.1 percent of regional GDP. 

The idea of directly and unconditionally transferring money with few restrictions to large swathes of the population runs contrary to popular conservative attitudes toward welfare, but various forms of this policy exist worldwide, and the sheer scale of the COVID-19 crisis has driven policymakers around the world to embrace the idea. While the US has distributed stimulus checks, spending on various cash transfers has already increased in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Peru, and Uruguay. 

ECLAC’s proposal goes further. First, the announced expansions of cash transfers in Latin America are far smaller than the 2.1 percent of regional GDP that the proposal calls for; for example, Guatemala is seeking an expansion equal to 1.2 percent of its GDP, while Peru and Honduras are only aiming for an expansion of 0.4 percent of their GDP. Additionally, ECLAC recommends that countries consider keeping the basic income policy in place even after COVID-19, in order to tackle endemic poverty.

Though basic income isn’t a substitute for a well-funded welfare state, it may serve as a promising supplement to one. Research on unconditional cash transfers in Zambia not only found that they were highly effective anti-poverty measures, but that they also had positive spillover effects on local economies. Additional research also casts doubt on common criticisms of the idea: that it will decrease labor participation, increase drug and alcohol consumption, etc.

By quickly distributing cash without hassle to impoverished populations, a targeted basic income for the poor could serve as a vital part of Latin America’s policy response to COVID-19. The international community should act to assist the region in making such a program possible, including through a new issuance of Special Drawing Rights.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Latin America could be potentially devastating, according to a new Special Report by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The report, based on the available data in mid-April, has estimated a -5.3 percent drop for the region’s GDP growth in 2020 — the largest in the region’s history. If this is the case, ECLAC calculates, 29 million more people would be pushed into poverty and 16 million more into extreme poverty, alongside a dramatic increase in inequality in what is already the most unequal region in the world

In the face of this potential disaster, the authors of the ECLAC report recommend a “basic emergency income” as an anti-poverty measure. The proposal could be a powerful tool for economic empowerment that can help millions survive the recession if paired with other measures, the paper argues.

The damage of the COVID-19 crisis won’t just come from labor disruptions caused by social distancing and lockdowns, but from a number of other Covid-related factors as well. ECLAC estimates that low global demand and crashing commodity prices could reduce the value of exports from Latin America by 15 percent this year. Tourism could drop by 20–30 percent. Declining incomes throughout the world means that remittances from immigrants, a source of $96 billion dollars for the region last year, will shrink 19.3 percent this year, according to World Bank estimates

To prevent a depression and reduce the economic damage, a response to the COVID-19 crisis requires distributing money to large groups of people experiencing a drop in income as quickly and efficiently as possible. In addition, because the Americas lead the world in the percentage of workers who are in “at-risk” informal sectors of the economy, the region’s response can’t exclusively work through employment-based stimulus policies targeted at formal businesses, as these will be less effective at reaching everyone.

The ECLAC report, released May 12, calls on nations in the region to “provid[e] a basic emergency income … equivalent to one poverty line (the per capita cost of acquiring a basic food basket and meeting other basic needs) over the course of six months to the entire population living in poverty in 2020.” ECLAC estimates that direct cash transfers to 215 million people (a bit over a third of Latin America’s population) would cost 2.1 percent of regional GDP. 

The idea of directly and unconditionally transferring money with few restrictions to large swathes of the population runs contrary to popular conservative attitudes toward welfare, but various forms of this policy exist worldwide, and the sheer scale of the COVID-19 crisis has driven policymakers around the world to embrace the idea. While the US has distributed stimulus checks, spending on various cash transfers has already increased in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Peru, and Uruguay. 

ECLAC’s proposal goes further. First, the announced expansions of cash transfers in Latin America are far smaller than the 2.1 percent of regional GDP that the proposal calls for; for example, Guatemala is seeking an expansion equal to 1.2 percent of its GDP, while Peru and Honduras are only aiming for an expansion of 0.4 percent of their GDP. Additionally, ECLAC recommends that countries consider keeping the basic income policy in place even after COVID-19, in order to tackle endemic poverty.

Though basic income isn’t a substitute for a well-funded welfare state, it may serve as a promising supplement to one. Research on unconditional cash transfers in Zambia not only found that they were highly effective anti-poverty measures, but that they also had positive spillover effects on local economies. Additional research also casts doubt on common criticisms of the idea: that it will decrease labor participation, increase drug and alcohol consumption, etc.

By quickly distributing cash without hassle to impoverished populations, a targeted basic income for the poor could serve as a vital part of Latin America’s policy response to COVID-19. The international community should act to assist the region in making such a program possible, including through a new issuance of Special Drawing Rights.

On Tuesday, in a comment to CEPR’s Americas Blog, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson confirmed that the agency had run 112 deportation flights to 13 countries during an eight-week period beginning in early March. This is the first on-the-record comment from ICE confirming the extent of the agency’s deportations. 

Since late April, CEPR has maintained a database of “likely” ICE Air deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean (updated daily and available here). Though ICE did not provide a detailed accounting of individual flights, the overall numbers provided by ICE almost exactly match those in the CEPR database.

From March 8 to May 9, the ICE spokesperson said the agency had run 112 deportation flights to 13 countries, including 12 in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The only country outside the region to receive a deportation flight was Liberia; ICE deported a known human rights-abuser on a charter flight in late April. That leaves 111 flights to the LAC region; over the same period, the CEPR database includes 110 unique flights (as some flights make multiple stops, the database shows flights to 116 destinations).

Each flight in the CEPR ICE Air Database can be seen in the graphic below. From February 3 through May 20, the database includes 273 likely ICE Air deportation flights to the LAC region.

US Ramping up Deportations? 

Following the Trump administration’s designation of a national emergency on March 13, the number of deportation flights fell, and one of the charter plane companies appeared to stop operating on behalf of ICE. Members of Congress and international human rights organizations have called on the Trump administration to halt deportations, which threaten to spread the disease even further and prolong the pandemic.

However, recent trends indicate the US may be once again ramping up deportations even as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise globally — and within ICE detention centers in the United States. Though ICE has claimed it is following medical guidelines, those guidelines have not stopped the US from continuing to export COVID-19 through its deportation flights. In the last two weeks, three countries in the region received deportation flights after prolonged breaks. 

On May 7, ICE deported 27 Peruvians on a Swift Air charter plane. Peru was not among the countries with regularly scheduled deportation flights in fiscal year 2019, and the CEPR ICE Air database contains no other likely deportation flights to Peru since February. In a comment to CEPR, however, an ICE spokesperson said that the US had deported 253 Peruvians in fiscal year 2020 as of May 2 — indicating the recent Peru flight is likely the restart of an existing route.


Source: Flightaware.com and author’s calculations. Note: Week 16 data is only through 5/20. 

This week also saw the resumption of deportations to Managua, Nicaragua. The country had received one flight every two weeks until mid-April. The flight this week was the first in 34 days.

On May 19, two Swift Air planes flew to Mexico City: one from Brownsville, Texas and another from San Diego, California. The next day, the Mexican government confirmed that those were the first of eight flights planned over the next ten days. With the flights to Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico, ICE has now operated deportation flights to 11 countries in the region so far in the month of May. 

It also now appears that the US is once again operating deportation flights to destinations outside the LAC region. On May 19, 167 Indian nationals were flown on an Omni Air charter plane to Sri Guru Ram Das International Airport in Armitsar, in India’s Punjab province — the only known deportation outside the region other than the earlier flight to Liberia. 

On May 15, the Department of Homeland Security exercised an option on its charter flight contract valued at $50 million. The option brings the total allocated under Classic Air Charter’s (CAC) contract to $346.5 million.

On Tuesday, in a comment to CEPR’s Americas Blog, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson confirmed that the agency had run 112 deportation flights to 13 countries during an eight-week period beginning in early March. This is the first on-the-record comment from ICE confirming the extent of the agency’s deportations. 

Since late April, CEPR has maintained a database of “likely” ICE Air deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean (updated daily and available here). Though ICE did not provide a detailed accounting of individual flights, the overall numbers provided by ICE almost exactly match those in the CEPR database.

From March 8 to May 9, the ICE spokesperson said the agency had run 112 deportation flights to 13 countries, including 12 in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The only country outside the region to receive a deportation flight was Liberia; ICE deported a known human rights-abuser on a charter flight in late April. That leaves 111 flights to the LAC region; over the same period, the CEPR database includes 110 unique flights (as some flights make multiple stops, the database shows flights to 116 destinations).

Each flight in the CEPR ICE Air Database can be seen in the graphic below. From February 3 through May 20, the database includes 273 likely ICE Air deportation flights to the LAC region.

US Ramping up Deportations? 

Following the Trump administration’s designation of a national emergency on March 13, the number of deportation flights fell, and one of the charter plane companies appeared to stop operating on behalf of ICE. Members of Congress and international human rights organizations have called on the Trump administration to halt deportations, which threaten to spread the disease even further and prolong the pandemic.

However, recent trends indicate the US may be once again ramping up deportations even as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise globally — and within ICE detention centers in the United States. Though ICE has claimed it is following medical guidelines, those guidelines have not stopped the US from continuing to export COVID-19 through its deportation flights. In the last two weeks, three countries in the region received deportation flights after prolonged breaks. 

On May 7, ICE deported 27 Peruvians on a Swift Air charter plane. Peru was not among the countries with regularly scheduled deportation flights in fiscal year 2019, and the CEPR ICE Air database contains no other likely deportation flights to Peru since February. In a comment to CEPR, however, an ICE spokesperson said that the US had deported 253 Peruvians in fiscal year 2020 as of May 2 — indicating the recent Peru flight is likely the restart of an existing route.


Source: Flightaware.com and author’s calculations. Note: Week 16 data is only through 5/20. 

This week also saw the resumption of deportations to Managua, Nicaragua. The country had received one flight every two weeks until mid-April. The flight this week was the first in 34 days.

On May 19, two Swift Air planes flew to Mexico City: one from Brownsville, Texas and another from San Diego, California. The next day, the Mexican government confirmed that those were the first of eight flights planned over the next ten days. With the flights to Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico, ICE has now operated deportation flights to 11 countries in the region so far in the month of May. 

It also now appears that the US is once again operating deportation flights to destinations outside the LAC region. On May 19, 167 Indian nationals were flown on an Omni Air charter plane to Sri Guru Ram Das International Airport in Armitsar, in India’s Punjab province — the only known deportation outside the region other than the earlier flight to Liberia. 

On May 15, the Department of Homeland Security exercised an option on its charter flight contract valued at $50 million. The option brings the total allocated under Classic Air Charter’s (CAC) contract to $346.5 million.

For those following Argentina’s debt saga, the current situation might seem eerily familiar: after the implosion of an IMF program, Argentina finds itself at the brink of default, with a debt burden, denominated in foreign currencies, that it simply cannot pay. In contrast with Argentina’s default in 2001, when it reached agreements with most of its creditors years later,  this time Argentina’s government is doing its best to avoid default by attempting to find agreement with its lenders for an orderly restructuring.

Argentina made its creditors an offer based on a sound framework that aims to restore debt sustainability. The offer proposed a three-year stay on all payments, followed by a gradual resumption in interest repayments as the economy recovers, along with a 0.4 percent write-off of the capital value of the bonds. Creditors now have a choice between accepting this offer or letting Argentina default as negotiations drag on.

To understand why this offer is the best Argentina can do, one needs to understand the dire situation its economy is in. Until Argentina can revive its economy, it truly does not have enough revenue to service its dollar-denominated debt. Negotiations or costly litigation might drag on. And even if creditors get a better deal on paper, it does not matter if Argentina cannot honor it.

Between 2017 and 2019, the ratio of external debt-to-GDP exploded: from 38.8 percent in 2017, to 69 percent in 2019. This was caused by a sharp depreciation of the peso, along with a contraction of the economy. These numbers will only get much worse this year as Argentina battles COVID-19. This additional shock is not only hurting Argentina’s domestic economy but has also caused a collapse in commodity prices, Argentina’s main source of exports.

It is clear that Argentina’s debt is unpayable and needs to be restructured. The IMF released its own debt sustainability analysis, which reached the same conclusion as the Argentine government: the debt is unsustainable and there is no scope for any foreign currency payments for at least the next three years. The most important implication of this assessment is that the IMF will no longer lend any funds to Argentina before a debt restructuring occurs, as its own rules forbid it from lending to countries with unsustainable debt.

Argentina’s private creditors need to accept that they will not receive their agreed-upon returns as there is currently no one left to bail them out. A restructuring could have taken place at more favorable terms if it had occurred before the IMF started its record $56 billion program in the summer of 2018. To most observers, it was already clear then that Argentina’s debt was unsustainable. Yet, the IMF bent its own rules and officially assessed Argentina’s debt to be “sustainable but not with a high probability.” This decision was made on political grounds, as the Trump administration was committed to the IMF supporting then president Mauricio Macri. 

The roots of this crisis can be traced back to mistakes made by the Macri administration, in office from 2015 to 2019. Before Macri, Argentina was locked out of international credit markets due to a legal dispute with holdouts from its previous debt restructuring. The vulture funds — hedge funds that buy distressed debt and then take legal action to recover the full face value of the bonds — managed to hold Argentina hostage due to a 2014 ruling by a US court that Argentina could not repay any creditors until it paid the holdouts. Macri, who was elected on a “market-friendly” platform, was quick to settle the dispute and pay the vulture funds, with some making profits as high as 1200 percent.

Another step Macri took that would later prove disastrous was his immediate removal of all capital control measures. At first, markets cheered this, and Argentina issued over $40 billion in dollar-denominated bonds, mostly under US law. While markets lent him more dollars, Argentina continued to have limited sources of dollar revenue, and there were no significant investments in growing Argentina’s export base. Argentina’s macroeconomic imbalances were revealed when a brief rise in US interest rates precipitated capital outflows from emerging markets.

The large and sudden reversal in capital flows from Argentina caused a collapse of the peso, as the Central Bank stumbled to defend its currency, spending billions of dollars to no avail. It is then that the Macri administration approached the IMF, which ignored the debt sustainability issues and proceeded to sign an agreement of $56 billion, out of which about $44 billion was eventually disbursed. Most of the funds disbursed immediately left the country, enabling many investors to cash out of Argentina at little or no loss.

Meanwhile, Argentina was stuck with additional foreign exchange debt and an economic collapse exacerbated by IMF-imposed austerity. The cuts dictated by the IMF worsened the recession and failed to reduce Argentina’s deficit, as revenues collapsed along with the economy. The program also had enormous social costs, as poverty jumped from 27.3 percent in 2018 to over 35 percent at the end of 2019.  

Argentina is entering its third year of recession as it now also battles the crisis triggered by COVID-19. In the last four years, Argentina reduced its primary expenditures by over 5 percent, negatively impacting its economy and thus failing to  allow room to  reduce the budget deficit. There is no more space for additional fiscal consolidation without deepening the economic crisis, and in the current context of a health emergency, without putting more lives at risk. For Argentina to generate revenue to repay its debt, it first needs the space for an economic recovery.

Given this national context, along with the unfavorable global economic situation, it is easy to conclude that Argentina is doing the best it can to do right by its people and by its creditors.

For those following Argentina’s debt saga, the current situation might seem eerily familiar: after the implosion of an IMF program, Argentina finds itself at the brink of default, with a debt burden, denominated in foreign currencies, that it simply cannot pay. In contrast with Argentina’s default in 2001, when it reached agreements with most of its creditors years later,  this time Argentina’s government is doing its best to avoid default by attempting to find agreement with its lenders for an orderly restructuring.

Argentina made its creditors an offer based on a sound framework that aims to restore debt sustainability. The offer proposed a three-year stay on all payments, followed by a gradual resumption in interest repayments as the economy recovers, along with a 0.4 percent write-off of the capital value of the bonds. Creditors now have a choice between accepting this offer or letting Argentina default as negotiations drag on.

To understand why this offer is the best Argentina can do, one needs to understand the dire situation its economy is in. Until Argentina can revive its economy, it truly does not have enough revenue to service its dollar-denominated debt. Negotiations or costly litigation might drag on. And even if creditors get a better deal on paper, it does not matter if Argentina cannot honor it.

Between 2017 and 2019, the ratio of external debt-to-GDP exploded: from 38.8 percent in 2017, to 69 percent in 2019. This was caused by a sharp depreciation of the peso, along with a contraction of the economy. These numbers will only get much worse this year as Argentina battles COVID-19. This additional shock is not only hurting Argentina’s domestic economy but has also caused a collapse in commodity prices, Argentina’s main source of exports.

It is clear that Argentina’s debt is unpayable and needs to be restructured. The IMF released its own debt sustainability analysis, which reached the same conclusion as the Argentine government: the debt is unsustainable and there is no scope for any foreign currency payments for at least the next three years. The most important implication of this assessment is that the IMF will no longer lend any funds to Argentina before a debt restructuring occurs, as its own rules forbid it from lending to countries with unsustainable debt.

Argentina’s private creditors need to accept that they will not receive their agreed-upon returns as there is currently no one left to bail them out. A restructuring could have taken place at more favorable terms if it had occurred before the IMF started its record $56 billion program in the summer of 2018. To most observers, it was already clear then that Argentina’s debt was unsustainable. Yet, the IMF bent its own rules and officially assessed Argentina’s debt to be “sustainable but not with a high probability.” This decision was made on political grounds, as the Trump administration was committed to the IMF supporting then president Mauricio Macri. 

The roots of this crisis can be traced back to mistakes made by the Macri administration, in office from 2015 to 2019. Before Macri, Argentina was locked out of international credit markets due to a legal dispute with holdouts from its previous debt restructuring. The vulture funds — hedge funds that buy distressed debt and then take legal action to recover the full face value of the bonds — managed to hold Argentina hostage due to a 2014 ruling by a US court that Argentina could not repay any creditors until it paid the holdouts. Macri, who was elected on a “market-friendly” platform, was quick to settle the dispute and pay the vulture funds, with some making profits as high as 1200 percent.

Another step Macri took that would later prove disastrous was his immediate removal of all capital control measures. At first, markets cheered this, and Argentina issued over $40 billion in dollar-denominated bonds, mostly under US law. While markets lent him more dollars, Argentina continued to have limited sources of dollar revenue, and there were no significant investments in growing Argentina’s export base. Argentina’s macroeconomic imbalances were revealed when a brief rise in US interest rates precipitated capital outflows from emerging markets.

The large and sudden reversal in capital flows from Argentina caused a collapse of the peso, as the Central Bank stumbled to defend its currency, spending billions of dollars to no avail. It is then that the Macri administration approached the IMF, which ignored the debt sustainability issues and proceeded to sign an agreement of $56 billion, out of which about $44 billion was eventually disbursed. Most of the funds disbursed immediately left the country, enabling many investors to cash out of Argentina at little or no loss.

Meanwhile, Argentina was stuck with additional foreign exchange debt and an economic collapse exacerbated by IMF-imposed austerity. The cuts dictated by the IMF worsened the recession and failed to reduce Argentina’s deficit, as revenues collapsed along with the economy. The program also had enormous social costs, as poverty jumped from 27.3 percent in 2018 to over 35 percent at the end of 2019.  

Argentina is entering its third year of recession as it now also battles the crisis triggered by COVID-19. In the last four years, Argentina reduced its primary expenditures by over 5 percent, negatively impacting its economy and thus failing to  allow room to  reduce the budget deficit. There is no more space for additional fiscal consolidation without deepening the economic crisis, and in the current context of a health emergency, without putting more lives at risk. For Argentina to generate revenue to repay its debt, it first needs the space for an economic recovery.

Given this national context, along with the unfavorable global economic situation, it is easy to conclude that Argentina is doing the best it can to do right by its people and by its creditors.

Un análisis de CEPR revela que es probable que hubo 232 vuelos de deportación del Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de Estados Unidos (ICE, por sus siglas en inglés) a países de América Latina y el Caribe entre el 3 de febrero y el 24 de abril de 2020.

En 2019, el Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de Estados Unidos (ICE, por sus siglas en inglés) deportó a 267.258 personas, de las cuales el 96% eran de América Latina y el Caribe. A pesar de que la mayoría de los medios se han enfocado en México (49,7% del total), Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador (que juntas suman 45,1% del total), ICE deportó al menos a una persona a cada país de América Latina en 2019. Diez países de la región aceptaron vuelos de deportación regulares realizados por las operaciones aéreas de ICE –conocidas como “ICE Air”– el año pasado.

A pesar de que la mayoría de las deportaciones hacia México se realizan por tierra, ICE Air gestiona anualmente vuelos para decenas de miles de personas a todo el país y al mundo. En plena pandemia, que ha generado la suspensión de vuelos y el cierre de fronteras de países, ICE Air continúa deportando a miles de inmigrantes retenidos en centros de detención de todo el país; instalaciones que se han convertido en epicentros de brotes de COVID-19. Esto significa que Estados Unidos está ahora exportando el virus a toda la región.

Más allá de la recurrencia de los vuelos de deportación de ICE Air, y el grave riesgo que representa su continuación para la salud pública durante la pandemia, poco se sabe de la frecuencia y los destinos. Sin embargo, un nuevo análisis de datos de rastreos de vuelos arroja luces sobre el alcance de los vuelos de ICE Air y el impacto de estas deportaciones sobre los países de América Latina y el Caribe. Desde que la administración Trump declaró una emergencia nacional el 13 de marzo, una de los contratistas de ICE Air ha realizado al menos 72 presuntos vuelos de deportación a 11 naciones de América Latina y el Caribe, incluyendo a Brasil y Ecuador, países que están sufriendo los peores brotes de COVID-19 en la región y que han experimentado un incremento de vuelos de este tipo durante la gestión del actual gobierno estadounidense.

Todo parece indicar que, del 15 de marzo al 24 de abril, ICE Air realizó 21 vuelos de deportación a Guatemala; 18 a Honduras; 12 a El Salvador; seis a Brasil; tres a Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haití y la República Dominicana respectivamente; uno a Colombia y uno a Jamaica. Se pueden observar todos los posibles vuelos de deportación de ICE Air desde febrero en el siguiente mapa interactivo.

En 2019, investigadores del Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad de Washington (UWCHR) obtuvieron los registros de vuelos de 2010 a 2018 por medio de una solicitud amparada en la Ley de Libertad de la Información. El análisis del UWCHR es el análisis más completo del alcance de las operaciones de ICE Air y el conjunto de datos completos puede ser consultado aquí. El informe también reveló que dos compañías de chárter privadas –Swift Air y Western Atlantic Airlines– fueron subcontratadas para realizar la mayoría de los vuelos de deportación de ICE Air.

La data analizada para la presente publicación fue tomada de Flight Aware, una base de datos pública de rastreo de vuelos. Debido a que tanto Swift como Western realizan servicios de chárter regulares, no todos sus vuelos corresponden al sistema de deportación de ICE. Sin embargo, los vuelos incluidos en este análisis coinciden con vuelos de deportación conocidos, parten además de aeropuertos conocidos por realizar vuelos de deportación y siguen rutas conocidas por transportar detenidos de ICE. Es posible que algunos de los vuelos aquí incluidos no sean de deportación, pero es mucho más probable que estos cálculos sean muy por debajo del alcance real de las operaciones de ICE Air. El Servicio de Inmigración estadounidense también es conocido por utilizar aerolíneas comerciales para deportaciones y es posible que esté contratando los servicios de otras compañías de chárter. Durante el año fiscal 2017, más de 85% de las deportaciones de ICE Air se realizaron a través de servicios de chárter, según el Inspector General del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional (DHS, por sus siglas en inglés).

Deportaciones de ICE continúan, pero frecuencia disminuye

En los primeros tres meses del 2020, ICE deportó a cerca de 20.833 personas por mes, una cifra que auguraba un número similar que en 2019. En contraste, el Washington Post reportó que durante los 11 primeros días del mes de abril de 2020, ICE deportó a 2.985 personas, lo que equivale a menos de la mitad del promedio anual. Ciertamente, los datos del rastreo de vuelos aquí analizados muestran una reducción en los vuelos de deportación, comenzando el 13 de marzo aproximadamente, como se puede apreciar en la tabla a continuación.

Tabla 1. Presuntos vuelos de deportación de ICE Air, por semana

Semana

El Salvador

Nicaragua

Guatemala

Honduras

Brasil

Ecuador

México

Colombia

Jamaica

Haití

República Dominicana

Cuba

Total

Semana 1 (2/3 – 2/9)

3

1

13

5

1

2

2

0

0

1

1

0

29

Semana 2 (2/10 – 2/16)

3

0

11

6

1

1

2

0

0

0

0

0

24

Semana 3 (2/17 – 2/23)

3

1

11

6

1

2

2

0

0

1

1

0

28

Semana 4 (2/24 – 3/1)

3

0

10

7

0

1

2

1

1

0

0

1

26

Semana 5 (3/2 – 3/8)

4

1

9

5

2

3

3

0

0

1

1

0

29

Semana 6 (3/9 – 3/15

4

0

11

7

0

1

2

0

0

0

0

0

25

Semana 7 (3/16 – 3/22)

2

1

3

1

2

0

1

0

0

1

1

0

12

Semana 8 (3/23 – 3/29)

2

0

7

3

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

14

Semana 9 (3/30 – 4/5)

2

1

4

4

1

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

14

Semana 10 (4/5 – 4/12)

2

0

1

3

0

0

0

0

0

1

1

0

8

Semana 11 (4/13 – 4/19)

2

1

5

4

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

13

Semana 12 (4/20 – 4/26)

2

0

1

3

1

0

0

0

1

1

1

0

10

TOTAL

32

6

86

54

11

12

14

2

2

6

6

1

232

TOTAL DESDE EL 13 DE MARZO

12

3

21

18

6

3

1

1

1

3

3

0

72

Fuente: Flight Aware, cálculos del autor.

La caída que se puede apreciar en la tabla anterior parece ser el resultado de la interrupción de los vuelos chárter internacionales de Western Atlantic el 13 de marzo, cuando Estados Unidos declaró una emergencia nacional. El otro subcontratista de ICE Air, Swift Air, ha continuado los vuelos. A pesar de las restricciones de tráfico aéreo internacional, Swift mantuvo en marzo casi el mismo número de vuelos de Estados Unidos a países de América Latina y el Caribe que en febrero, aunque esa cifra se ha reducido ligeramente en abril (en meses recientes, los aviones de Swift han realizado viajes a un número adicional de países en la región, incluyendo Cuba, Surinam, Perú, Bolivia, Trinidad y Tobago, Aruba, Belice y Granada, sin embargo, estos no coinciden con los vuelos de deportación conocidos y han sido excluidos del análisis).

A pesar de que se ha prestado mucha atención a los recientes vuelos de deportación con destino a Guatemala y Haití –ambos países han informado casos confirmados de COVID-19 entre esos deportados–, los datos revelan que probablemente muchos otros países están experimentando el mismo fenómeno.

En 2019, la administración Trump comenzó las deportaciones de ICE Air a Brasil, país que anteriormente había bloqueado dichos vuelos. Estados Unidos se apoya en los gobiernos extranjeros que aprueban los vuelos de deportación y, bajo el liderazgo de Jair Bolsonaro, aliado de Trump, Brasil ha accedido. Los datos aéreos indican que dichos vuelos han continuado durante la pandemia. Desde el 13 de marzo, ha habido seis vuelos operados por Swift Air a Belo Horizonte, Brasil, que ya ha sido destino previo de estos vuelos de deportación. Actualmente, Brasil está viviendo el mayor brote de COVID-19 en la región.

Algunos de los vuelos de Swift Air a Brasil han hecho escala en la ciudad portuaria de Guayaquil, quizás el epicentro del brote más mortal de COVID-19 en el mundo. Las deportaciones a Ecuador se incrementaron en un 78% en 2019, comparado al año anterior, debido a que, similar al gobierno brasileño, el país ha buscado fortalecer las relaciones con la administración de Trump. Como se puede notar en la tabla anterior, los presuntos vuelos de deportación a Ecuador se han reducido desde el surgimiento de la pandemia. Sin embargo, ha habido tres desde marzo, incluyendo uno el 17 de abril a Quito con al menos 70 personas, según abogados de inmigración.

De manera interesante, a pesar de que las deportaciones hacia México han continuado –un deportado reciente dio positivo para COVID-19 y contagió al menos a 13 personas–, los vuelos regulares de ICE Air desde San Diego y el área de Phoenix con destino a Guadalajara parecen haberse detenido desde el 16 de marzo. Dichos vuelos han formado parte de un acuerdo entre México y Estados Unidos para deportar personas hacia el interior del país.

En la última semana, Swift Air ha operado 11 presuntos vuelos de deportación a siete países diferentes: Brasil, Haití, República Dominicana y Jamaica, así como a los centroamericanos de siempre, Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador.

ICE Air es una amenaza interna y externa

La mayoría de los vuelos analizados salieron de dos aeropuertos conocidos por ser puntos de deportación de ICE: Brownsville, Texas; y Alexandria, Louisiana. Las instalaciones de ICE de Alexandria, manejadas por la compañía privada de prisiones GEO Group, se han visto severamente afectadas por casos de COVID-19, con al menos 11 empleados que han dado positivo. El avión que llevó un estimado de 40 casos confirmados de COVID-19 a Guatemala la semana pasada salió del aeropuerto de Alexandria.

En total, el gobierno guatemalteco estima que 20% de los casos confirmados de COVID-19 en el país son inmigrantes que regresaron recientemente.

Tabla 2. Presuntos vuelos de deportación de ICE después del 13 de marzo, por aeropuerto de salida

Aeropuerto de salida

Número de vuelos

Porcentaje total

Bownsville, Texas

18

27,3%

Alexadria, Lousiana

17

25,8%

El Paso, Texas

12

18,2%

Houston, Texas

8

12,1%

Phoenix, Arizona

3

4,5%

San Antonio, Texas

2

3,0%

Laredo, Texas

2

3,0%

San Diego, California

1

1,5%

Dallas, Texas

1

1,5%

Miami, Florida

1

1,5%

Harlingen, Texas

1

1,5%

TOTAL

66

100,0%

Fuente: Flight Aware, cálculos del autor.

Nota: el número total de vuelos de esta tabla no coincide con el número total de vuelos después del 13 de marzo porque algunos viajes incluyeron múltiples paradas.

A pesar de las obvias preocupaciones sanitarias, hasta el momento ICE se ha rehusado a realizar pruebas a los detenidos previo a su deportación, aunque funcionarios han indicado recientemente que comenzarían a hacer al menos pruebas parciales. El Washington Post reportó que “es poco probable que [ICE] aplique pruebas a cada deportado a menos que los gobiernos extranjeros lo exijan como condición para regresar a las personas”.

La realidad es que en el oscuro mundo de ICE Air, existe poca información sobre el verdadero alcance del transporte de detenidos, y no solo internacionalmente, sino también a nivel nacional. ProPublica informó el mes pasado que un detenido fue transportado nueve veces dentro de Estados Unidos en un período de 10 días. Y no es el único caso. Expertos en salud pública han advertido que los centros de detención de ICE representan un serio riesgo sanitario para los internos, así como para los empleados y las comunidades aledañas. Debido a que los detenidos viajan frecuentemente por todo el país y son retenidos en espacios confinados cerrados, es prácticamente imposible aislar de manera adecuada a quienes han contraído COVID-19 o asegurar que esos deportados no hayan estado expuestos al virus.

Algunas municipalidades estadounidenses han tomado medidas para librarse del problema de las deportaciones de ICE. En 2019, el Condado de King en Washington prohibió al Servicio de Inmigración estadounidense realizar vuelos de deportación desde su aeropuerto local, aunque el gobierno de Trump demandó posteriormente a las autoridades locales. Sin embargo, al parecer varias comunidades intentan seguir este ejemplo en medio de la pandemia global. Líderes locales en El Paso manifestaron recientemente su preocupación por los continuos vuelos de deportación después de que un vuelo de ICE con un pasajero confirmado de COVID-19 pasara por el aeropuerto de la municipalidad.

Pero ICE Air es también un gran negocio; de 2010 a 2017, el Servicio de Inmigración estadounidense gastó aproximadamente mil millones de dólares en su programa de deportaciones. En 2017, la administración Trump otorgó un nuevo contrato a Classic Air Charters, la misma compañía utilizada como parte del programa de centros clandestinos de detención de la CIA, conocidos como black sites o “lugares negros”, durante la administración Bush. El contrato de la CIA tiene un valor estimado de más de 300 millones de dólares, de los cuales 90 millones ya han sido desembolsados en el 2020 por parte de ICE. Debido a que tanto Swift Air como Western Atlantic operan como subcontratistas, no existe información pública del valor de los contratos firmados con el gobierno federal. El New York Times informó en 2017 que Swift recibió del gobierno cerca de 15 millones de dólares al año. Los contratistas de ICE Air cobran cerca de 8 mil dólares por hora de vuelo, independientemente del número de pasajeros. En 2019, iAero Group y Blackstone –una de las empresas privadas de capital de riesgo más grandes del mundo– compró Swift Air, aunque continúa operando con el mismo nombre.

Rastreo de la flota aérea de ICE

En las últimas 12 semanas, aparentemente ICE ha utilizado 22 aviones chárter únicos para realizar 232 presuntos vuelos de deportación. De esos aviones, 15 participaron en vuelos de deportación confirmados de ICE entre octubre de 2018 y mayo de 2019, según los datos más recientes compilados por el UNCHR.

Anteriormente, un software de rastreo de vuelos permitía a usuarios ver todos los vuelos identificados con la sigla “RPN”, de “repatriación”, sin embargo, ya no se puede acceder al servicio y los vuelos de deportación actuales de ICE ya no usan la designación RPN. Una lista completa de los presuntos vuelos de deportación desde principios de febrero está disponible en este link (la información será actualizada regularmente). Los datos incluyen números de matrículas de 22 aviones identificados en un esfuerzo por suscitar la conciencia pública sobre los vuelos de deportación en curso.

Por supuesto, es factible que alguno de estos vuelos sean servicios de chárter regulares y no de deportaciones de ICE. La semana pasada el Miami Herald informó, con base a declaraciones de un funcionario aeroportuario local, que se realizaron dos vuelos de deportación de Swift Air a Honduras y Brasil. Sin embargo, el funcionario posteriormente dijo haberse “equivocado” y declaró al Herald que los aviones habían sido operados por Royal Caribbean. Si Usted tiene información sobrevuelos en esta lista que no fueron vuelos de deportación de ICE, o si sabe de algún vuelo de deportación que no está incluido en la lista, por favor contáctese con el autor de este artículo ([email protected]).

[Actualización de datos: desde la recolección de datos para el presente análisis, se han agregado a la base de datos dos vuelos con posibles deportados de ICE, los cuales permiten ilustrar lo útil que puede ser la data en la identificación del avance de estos vuelos. El lunes 27 de abril, un vuelo de Swift Air salió de Houston, Texas, a San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Este es el quinto lunes consecutivo que un vuelo de esta aerolínea viaja a San Pedro Sula. El martes 28 de abril, un vuelo de Swift Air salió de Houston, Texas, a San Salvador, El Salvador. Este es el sexto martes consecutivo que Swift Air vuela a San Salvador. Por otro lado, el 27 de abril un avión de Swift Air voló a Guatemala, pero utilizó un número de vuelo no asociado previamente con los vuelos de deportación conocidos y fue excluido del conjunto de datos].

Mapas y visualizaciones creados por Kevin Cashman.

Un análisis de CEPR revela que es probable que hubo 232 vuelos de deportación del Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de Estados Unidos (ICE, por sus siglas en inglés) a países de América Latina y el Caribe entre el 3 de febrero y el 24 de abril de 2020.

En 2019, el Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de Estados Unidos (ICE, por sus siglas en inglés) deportó a 267.258 personas, de las cuales el 96% eran de América Latina y el Caribe. A pesar de que la mayoría de los medios se han enfocado en México (49,7% del total), Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador (que juntas suman 45,1% del total), ICE deportó al menos a una persona a cada país de América Latina en 2019. Diez países de la región aceptaron vuelos de deportación regulares realizados por las operaciones aéreas de ICE –conocidas como “ICE Air”– el año pasado.

A pesar de que la mayoría de las deportaciones hacia México se realizan por tierra, ICE Air gestiona anualmente vuelos para decenas de miles de personas a todo el país y al mundo. En plena pandemia, que ha generado la suspensión de vuelos y el cierre de fronteras de países, ICE Air continúa deportando a miles de inmigrantes retenidos en centros de detención de todo el país; instalaciones que se han convertido en epicentros de brotes de COVID-19. Esto significa que Estados Unidos está ahora exportando el virus a toda la región.

Más allá de la recurrencia de los vuelos de deportación de ICE Air, y el grave riesgo que representa su continuación para la salud pública durante la pandemia, poco se sabe de la frecuencia y los destinos. Sin embargo, un nuevo análisis de datos de rastreos de vuelos arroja luces sobre el alcance de los vuelos de ICE Air y el impacto de estas deportaciones sobre los países de América Latina y el Caribe. Desde que la administración Trump declaró una emergencia nacional el 13 de marzo, una de los contratistas de ICE Air ha realizado al menos 72 presuntos vuelos de deportación a 11 naciones de América Latina y el Caribe, incluyendo a Brasil y Ecuador, países que están sufriendo los peores brotes de COVID-19 en la región y que han experimentado un incremento de vuelos de este tipo durante la gestión del actual gobierno estadounidense.

Todo parece indicar que, del 15 de marzo al 24 de abril, ICE Air realizó 21 vuelos de deportación a Guatemala; 18 a Honduras; 12 a El Salvador; seis a Brasil; tres a Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haití y la República Dominicana respectivamente; uno a Colombia y uno a Jamaica. Se pueden observar todos los posibles vuelos de deportación de ICE Air desde febrero en el siguiente mapa interactivo.

En 2019, investigadores del Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad de Washington (UWCHR) obtuvieron los registros de vuelos de 2010 a 2018 por medio de una solicitud amparada en la Ley de Libertad de la Información. El análisis del UWCHR es el análisis más completo del alcance de las operaciones de ICE Air y el conjunto de datos completos puede ser consultado aquí. El informe también reveló que dos compañías de chárter privadas –Swift Air y Western Atlantic Airlines– fueron subcontratadas para realizar la mayoría de los vuelos de deportación de ICE Air.

La data analizada para la presente publicación fue tomada de Flight Aware, una base de datos pública de rastreo de vuelos. Debido a que tanto Swift como Western realizan servicios de chárter regulares, no todos sus vuelos corresponden al sistema de deportación de ICE. Sin embargo, los vuelos incluidos en este análisis coinciden con vuelos de deportación conocidos, parten además de aeropuertos conocidos por realizar vuelos de deportación y siguen rutas conocidas por transportar detenidos de ICE. Es posible que algunos de los vuelos aquí incluidos no sean de deportación, pero es mucho más probable que estos cálculos sean muy por debajo del alcance real de las operaciones de ICE Air. El Servicio de Inmigración estadounidense también es conocido por utilizar aerolíneas comerciales para deportaciones y es posible que esté contratando los servicios de otras compañías de chárter. Durante el año fiscal 2017, más de 85% de las deportaciones de ICE Air se realizaron a través de servicios de chárter, según el Inspector General del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional (DHS, por sus siglas en inglés).

Deportaciones de ICE continúan, pero frecuencia disminuye

En los primeros tres meses del 2020, ICE deportó a cerca de 20.833 personas por mes, una cifra que auguraba un número similar que en 2019. En contraste, el Washington Post reportó que durante los 11 primeros días del mes de abril de 2020, ICE deportó a 2.985 personas, lo que equivale a menos de la mitad del promedio anual. Ciertamente, los datos del rastreo de vuelos aquí analizados muestran una reducción en los vuelos de deportación, comenzando el 13 de marzo aproximadamente, como se puede apreciar en la tabla a continuación.

Tabla 1. Presuntos vuelos de deportación de ICE Air, por semana

Semana

El Salvador

Nicaragua

Guatemala

Honduras

Brasil

Ecuador

México

Colombia

Jamaica

Haití

República Dominicana

Cuba

Total

Semana 1 (2/3 – 2/9)

3

1

13

5

1

2

2

0

0

1

1

0

29

Semana 2 (2/10 – 2/16)

3

0

11

6

1

1

2

0

0

0

0

0

24

Semana 3 (2/17 – 2/23)

3

1

11

6

1

2

2

0

0

1

1

0

28

Semana 4 (2/24 – 3/1)

3

0

10

7

0

1

2

1

1

0

0

1

26

Semana 5 (3/2 – 3/8)

4

1

9

5

2

3

3

0

0

1

1

0

29

Semana 6 (3/9 – 3/15

4

0

11

7

0

1

2

0

0

0

0

0

25

Semana 7 (3/16 – 3/22)

2

1

3

1

2

0

1

0

0

1

1

0

12

Semana 8 (3/23 – 3/29)

2

0

7

3

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

14

Semana 9 (3/30 – 4/5)

2

1

4

4

1

1

0

1

0

0

0

0

14

Semana 10 (4/5 – 4/12)

2

0

1

3

0

0

0

0

0

1

1

0

8

Semana 11 (4/13 – 4/19)

2

1

5

4

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

13

Semana 12 (4/20 – 4/26)

2

0

1

3

1

0

0

0

1

1

1

0

10

TOTAL

32

6

86

54

11

12

14

2

2

6

6

1

232

TOTAL DESDE EL 13 DE MARZO

12

3

21

18

6

3

1

1

1

3

3

0

72

Fuente: Flight Aware, cálculos del autor.

La caída que se puede apreciar en la tabla anterior parece ser el resultado de la interrupción de los vuelos chárter internacionales de Western Atlantic el 13 de marzo, cuando Estados Unidos declaró una emergencia nacional. El otro subcontratista de ICE Air, Swift Air, ha continuado los vuelos. A pesar de las restricciones de tráfico aéreo internacional, Swift mantuvo en marzo casi el mismo número de vuelos de Estados Unidos a países de América Latina y el Caribe que en febrero, aunque esa cifra se ha reducido ligeramente en abril (en meses recientes, los aviones de Swift han realizado viajes a un número adicional de países en la región, incluyendo Cuba, Surinam, Perú, Bolivia, Trinidad y Tobago, Aruba, Belice y Granada, sin embargo, estos no coinciden con los vuelos de deportación conocidos y han sido excluidos del análisis).

A pesar de que se ha prestado mucha atención a los recientes vuelos de deportación con destino a Guatemala y Haití –ambos países han informado casos confirmados de COVID-19 entre esos deportados–, los datos revelan que probablemente muchos otros países están experimentando el mismo fenómeno.

En 2019, la administración Trump comenzó las deportaciones de ICE Air a Brasil, país que anteriormente había bloqueado dichos vuelos. Estados Unidos se apoya en los gobiernos extranjeros que aprueban los vuelos de deportación y, bajo el liderazgo de Jair Bolsonaro, aliado de Trump, Brasil ha accedido. Los datos aéreos indican que dichos vuelos han continuado durante la pandemia. Desde el 13 de marzo, ha habido seis vuelos operados por Swift Air a Belo Horizonte, Brasil, que ya ha sido destino previo de estos vuelos de deportación. Actualmente, Brasil está viviendo el mayor brote de COVID-19 en la región.

Algunos de los vuelos de Swift Air a Brasil han hecho escala en la ciudad portuaria de Guayaquil, quizás el epicentro del brote más mortal de COVID-19 en el mundo. Las deportaciones a Ecuador se incrementaron en un 78% en 2019, comparado al año anterior, debido a que, similar al gobierno brasileño, el país ha buscado fortalecer las relaciones con la administración de Trump. Como se puede notar en la tabla anterior, los presuntos vuelos de deportación a Ecuador se han reducido desde el surgimiento de la pandemia. Sin embargo, ha habido tres desde marzo, incluyendo uno el 17 de abril a Quito con al menos 70 personas, según abogados de inmigración.

De manera interesante, a pesar de que las deportaciones hacia México han continuado –un deportado reciente dio positivo para COVID-19 y contagió al menos a 13 personas–, los vuelos regulares de ICE Air desde San Diego y el área de Phoenix con destino a Guadalajara parecen haberse detenido desde el 16 de marzo. Dichos vuelos han formado parte de un acuerdo entre México y Estados Unidos para deportar personas hacia el interior del país.

En la última semana, Swift Air ha operado 11 presuntos vuelos de deportación a siete países diferentes: Brasil, Haití, República Dominicana y Jamaica, así como a los centroamericanos de siempre, Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador.

ICE Air es una amenaza interna y externa

La mayoría de los vuelos analizados salieron de dos aeropuertos conocidos por ser puntos de deportación de ICE: Brownsville, Texas; y Alexandria, Louisiana. Las instalaciones de ICE de Alexandria, manejadas por la compañía privada de prisiones GEO Group, se han visto severamente afectadas por casos de COVID-19, con al menos 11 empleados que han dado positivo. El avión que llevó un estimado de 40 casos confirmados de COVID-19 a Guatemala la semana pasada salió del aeropuerto de Alexandria.

En total, el gobierno guatemalteco estima que 20% de los casos confirmados de COVID-19 en el país son inmigrantes que regresaron recientemente.

Tabla 2. Presuntos vuelos de deportación de ICE después del 13 de marzo, por aeropuerto de salida

Aeropuerto de salida

Número de vuelos

Porcentaje total

Bownsville, Texas

18

27,3%

Alexadria, Lousiana

17

25,8%

El Paso, Texas

12

18,2%

Houston, Texas

8

12,1%

Phoenix, Arizona

3

4,5%

San Antonio, Texas

2

3,0%

Laredo, Texas

2

3,0%

San Diego, California

1

1,5%

Dallas, Texas

1

1,5%

Miami, Florida

1

1,5%

Harlingen, Texas

1

1,5%

TOTAL

66

100,0%

Fuente: Flight Aware, cálculos del autor.

Nota: el número total de vuelos de esta tabla no coincide con el número total de vuelos después del 13 de marzo porque algunos viajes incluyeron múltiples paradas.

A pesar de las obvias preocupaciones sanitarias, hasta el momento ICE se ha rehusado a realizar pruebas a los detenidos previo a su deportación, aunque funcionarios han indicado recientemente que comenzarían a hacer al menos pruebas parciales. El Washington Post reportó que “es poco probable que [ICE] aplique pruebas a cada deportado a menos que los gobiernos extranjeros lo exijan como condición para regresar a las personas”.

La realidad es que en el oscuro mundo de ICE Air, existe poca información sobre el verdadero alcance del transporte de detenidos, y no solo internacionalmente, sino también a nivel nacional. ProPublica informó el mes pasado que un detenido fue transportado nueve veces dentro de Estados Unidos en un período de 10 días. Y no es el único caso. Expertos en salud pública han advertido que los centros de detención de ICE representan un serio riesgo sanitario para los internos, así como para los empleados y las comunidades aledañas. Debido a que los detenidos viajan frecuentemente por todo el país y son retenidos en espacios confinados cerrados, es prácticamente imposible aislar de manera adecuada a quienes han contraído COVID-19 o asegurar que esos deportados no hayan estado expuestos al virus.

Algunas municipalidades estadounidenses han tomado medidas para librarse del problema de las deportaciones de ICE. En 2019, el Condado de King en Washington prohibió al Servicio de Inmigración estadounidense realizar vuelos de deportación desde su aeropuerto local, aunque el gobierno de Trump demandó posteriormente a las autoridades locales. Sin embargo, al parecer varias comunidades intentan seguir este ejemplo en medio de la pandemia global. Líderes locales en El Paso manifestaron recientemente su preocupación por los continuos vuelos de deportación después de que un vuelo de ICE con un pasajero confirmado de COVID-19 pasara por el aeropuerto de la municipalidad.

Pero ICE Air es también un gran negocio; de 2010 a 2017, el Servicio de Inmigración estadounidense gastó aproximadamente mil millones de dólares en su programa de deportaciones. En 2017, la administración Trump otorgó un nuevo contrato a Classic Air Charters, la misma compañía utilizada como parte del programa de centros clandestinos de detención de la CIA, conocidos como black sites o “lugares negros”, durante la administración Bush. El contrato de la CIA tiene un valor estimado de más de 300 millones de dólares, de los cuales 90 millones ya han sido desembolsados en el 2020 por parte de ICE. Debido a que tanto Swift Air como Western Atlantic operan como subcontratistas, no existe información pública del valor de los contratos firmados con el gobierno federal. El New York Times informó en 2017 que Swift recibió del gobierno cerca de 15 millones de dólares al año. Los contratistas de ICE Air cobran cerca de 8 mil dólares por hora de vuelo, independientemente del número de pasajeros. En 2019, iAero Group y Blackstone –una de las empresas privadas de capital de riesgo más grandes del mundo– compró Swift Air, aunque continúa operando con el mismo nombre.

Rastreo de la flota aérea de ICE

En las últimas 12 semanas, aparentemente ICE ha utilizado 22 aviones chárter únicos para realizar 232 presuntos vuelos de deportación. De esos aviones, 15 participaron en vuelos de deportación confirmados de ICE entre octubre de 2018 y mayo de 2019, según los datos más recientes compilados por el UNCHR.

Anteriormente, un software de rastreo de vuelos permitía a usuarios ver todos los vuelos identificados con la sigla “RPN”, de “repatriación”, sin embargo, ya no se puede acceder al servicio y los vuelos de deportación actuales de ICE ya no usan la designación RPN. Una lista completa de los presuntos vuelos de deportación desde principios de febrero está disponible en este link (la información será actualizada regularmente). Los datos incluyen números de matrículas de 22 aviones identificados en un esfuerzo por suscitar la conciencia pública sobre los vuelos de deportación en curso.

Por supuesto, es factible que alguno de estos vuelos sean servicios de chárter regulares y no de deportaciones de ICE. La semana pasada el Miami Herald informó, con base a declaraciones de un funcionario aeroportuario local, que se realizaron dos vuelos de deportación de Swift Air a Honduras y Brasil. Sin embargo, el funcionario posteriormente dijo haberse “equivocado” y declaró al Herald que los aviones habían sido operados por Royal Caribbean. Si Usted tiene información sobrevuelos en esta lista que no fueron vuelos de deportación de ICE, o si sabe de algún vuelo de deportación que no está incluido en la lista, por favor contáctese con el autor de este artículo ([email protected]).

[Actualización de datos: desde la recolección de datos para el presente análisis, se han agregado a la base de datos dos vuelos con posibles deportados de ICE, los cuales permiten ilustrar lo útil que puede ser la data en la identificación del avance de estos vuelos. El lunes 27 de abril, un vuelo de Swift Air salió de Houston, Texas, a San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Este es el quinto lunes consecutivo que un vuelo de esta aerolínea viaja a San Pedro Sula. El martes 28 de abril, un vuelo de Swift Air salió de Houston, Texas, a San Salvador, El Salvador. Este es el sexto martes consecutivo que Swift Air vuela a San Salvador. Por otro lado, el 27 de abril un avión de Swift Air voló a Guatemala, pero utilizó un número de vuelo no asociado previamente con los vuelos de deportación conocidos y fue excluido del conjunto de datos].

Mapas y visualizaciones creados por Kevin Cashman.

On April 22nd, President Trump signed an Executive Order putting a 60-day halt on the issuance of new green cards to immigrants admissible for permanent residency in the United States. This measure, coming on the back of other government measures restricting legal immigration, ostensibly seeks to protect the US from imported cases of COVID-19. But while Trump endeavors to block nearly all immigration into the US, his administration has been exporting the virus to countries that have extremely limited capacity and resources to deal with pandemics.

As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the Trump administration has continued deportation flights of undocumented migrants to Central America and the Caribbean, all while openly threatening countries that push back. The results are tragic and predictable: there are now multiple instances of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases to countries with under-resourced public health care systems that are already strained by the pandemic. In doing so, the Trump administration is not just putting the lives of immigrants and Latin Americans at risk, but those of people around the world.

On March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order invoking authority under a 1944 law to restrict travel from Mexico and Canada. The order states the need for 

the movement of all such aliens to the country from which they entered the United States, or their country of origin, or another location as practicable, as rapidly as possible, with as little time spent in congregate settings as practicable under the circumstances. The faster a covered alien is returned … the lower the risk the alien poses of introducing, transmitting, or spreading COVID–19 into [Ports of Entry], Border Patrol stations, other congregate settings, and the interior.

Part of the order’s justification was that immigrant detention centers, notorious for deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions, are ill-equipped for a quarantine scenario. Nationwide, more than 375 ICE detainees, and numerous staff, have tested positive for COVID-19 despite low testing rates. New research suggests that, at current detention levels, 72% of ICE detainees will have COVID-19 by day 90 in an optimistic scenario; in a pessimistic scenario, it’s nearly 100%. Despite this, ICE has only slowed down, not ended, raids to round up new detainees.

As a result of the CDC’s order, immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mexican border into the US are now being returned to Mexico in an average of just 96 minutes, without testing and without recognition of their due process or other rights under the US Constitution. Even with total border crossings into the US down significantly, over 10,000 immigrants were expelled back to Mexico in the weeks following the order. Taken together with administration policy before the outbreak, it seems clear that the CDC order is intended to further undermine the rights of asylum seekers. Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, commented that though the coronavirus pandemic “may warrant extraordinary measures at borders, expulsion of asylum seekers resulting in refoulement should not be among them.”

But the Trump administration hasn’t just been turning away new immigrants; it is continuing to deport detainees back to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 2,985 deportations in the first 11 days of April, a substantial decline from prior numbers but still deeply troubling given the global pandemic.

Though ICE is notoriously secretive about its operations, a review of public flight data shows that Swift Air, one of ICE’s major subcontractors for deportation flights, has continued to fly regularly from international airports near major ICE detainment centers to airports throughout Latin America, with the majority of flights headed to three national airports in Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), even amid a dramatic decline in global air travel. Though some of Swift’s air traffic may be private flights unrelated to deportation, 43 percent of ICE deportees were returned to Northern Central America in 2019, making up the vast majority of deportations when excluding Mexico’s 47 percent (deportations to Mexico occur over ground more often than by flight). 

As deportations have continued, there are now multiple confirmed cases of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases. In one instance, an immigrant, unaware he had contracted the virus, was deported from Houston to Mexico, leading to the infection of 13 others in a Nuevo Laredo shelter just south of the US-Mexican border. Ironically, the CDC order claimed “Medical experts believe that community transmission and spread of COVID–19 at asylum camps and shelters along the US border is inevitable, once community transmission begins in Mexico”; the order itself has contributed to this exact outcome. The Mexican government is now making the same mistake under US pressure, clearing its migrant shelters and sending immigrants and refugees back to Central America.

In Haiti, three deportees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, prompting 27 members of the US Congress and 164 human rights organizations to send letters asking the Trump administration to halt deportations to the beleaguered nation, and some Haitian scientists have asked the same. In fact, Haitian citizens legally visiting the US are having a harder time returning to Haiti than deportees are, as deportees aren’t being properly tested first. In Guatemala, the public health ministry has reported at least 99 people infected with COVID-19 who have been deported from the US on various flights, nearly one-fifth of all the country’s known cases. Though there are contradictory reports, Guatemala’s health minister claims that on one of these flights, the majority of deportees aboard were sick.

That flight led the Guatemalan government to temporarily suspend incoming deportation flights on March 17, and to request that the US government reform deportation protocols by testing deportees beforehand and limiting flights to 25 deportees each in order to allow for distancing. El Salvador joined in temporarily suspending deportation flights, while flights had supposedly already been stopped in Honduras due to general flight restrictions. The US did not comply with Guatemala’s requests, but Guatemala still lifted its suspension two days later and allowed deportation flights to resume — the same day the US government announced it would continue aid to Northern Central America. ICE claimed to be implementing some precautions, but some experts said they were woefully inadequate

After the Trump administration continued to send back deportees with COVID-19, the Guatemalan government suspended flights again on April 16 in what it described as a “consensual decision” with the US; the US also sent a CDC team to investigate. Only on April 24 did ICE announce it would begin testing some deportees, several months after the outbreak had been confirmed in the US. Nevertheless, Swift Air flights to Northern Central America seem to have continued even when these governments had said they were suspending them. Swift flights from ICE hubs in the US to all three nations have proceeded in the several days leading up to publication of this post.

This is due, no doubt, in part to US pressure. When Guatemala raised concerns early on, Trump responded with a memo on April 10, threatening to impose visa sanctions against any country that “denies or unreasonably delays the acceptance of aliens who are … subjects … of that country after being asked to accept those aliens” in a way that “imped[es] operations of the Department of Homeland Security necessary to respond to the ongoing pandemic …” (Though visa sanctions aiming to pressure countries on immigration policy had been imposed just twice in the quarter century between the end of the Cold War and Donald Trump’s election, Trump has used them against a total of eight different countries so far.)

Some of the countries that Trump has pressured into accepting deportees despite the risk of COVID-19 may be some of the least prepared nations in the entire Western Hemisphere to manage a pandemic. Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras all have some of the lowest testing rates in Latin America, meaning deportations may well have already contributed to an undetected spread of COVID-19. These nations also rank at the very bottom for hospital beds and medical professionals per capita. 

While the Trump administration justifies these draconian measures as necessary to protect the US from disease, the danger is obvious: the continued spread of the pandemic to places unprepared to manage it will further imperil the region, the US included. This is especially the case when ICE has used the same planes to deport immigrants and to bring US citizens back.

The mass deportation of immigrants was cruel and unnecessary long before COVID-19 struck, but in the midst of an active pandemic, the policy is not just unjust, it is also a threat to global health. As congressional leaders prepare the next COVID-19-related legislative package, legislators should support a moratorium on deportations and the release of nonviolent detainees in ICE facilities so long as the pandemic rages.

On April 22nd, President Trump signed an Executive Order putting a 60-day halt on the issuance of new green cards to immigrants admissible for permanent residency in the United States. This measure, coming on the back of other government measures restricting legal immigration, ostensibly seeks to protect the US from imported cases of COVID-19. But while Trump endeavors to block nearly all immigration into the US, his administration has been exporting the virus to countries that have extremely limited capacity and resources to deal with pandemics.

As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the Trump administration has continued deportation flights of undocumented migrants to Central America and the Caribbean, all while openly threatening countries that push back. The results are tragic and predictable: there are now multiple instances of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases to countries with under-resourced public health care systems that are already strained by the pandemic. In doing so, the Trump administration is not just putting the lives of immigrants and Latin Americans at risk, but those of people around the world.

On March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order invoking authority under a 1944 law to restrict travel from Mexico and Canada. The order states the need for 

the movement of all such aliens to the country from which they entered the United States, or their country of origin, or another location as practicable, as rapidly as possible, with as little time spent in congregate settings as practicable under the circumstances. The faster a covered alien is returned … the lower the risk the alien poses of introducing, transmitting, or spreading COVID–19 into [Ports of Entry], Border Patrol stations, other congregate settings, and the interior.

Part of the order’s justification was that immigrant detention centers, notorious for deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions, are ill-equipped for a quarantine scenario. Nationwide, more than 375 ICE detainees, and numerous staff, have tested positive for COVID-19 despite low testing rates. New research suggests that, at current detention levels, 72% of ICE detainees will have COVID-19 by day 90 in an optimistic scenario; in a pessimistic scenario, it’s nearly 100%. Despite this, ICE has only slowed down, not ended, raids to round up new detainees.

As a result of the CDC’s order, immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mexican border into the US are now being returned to Mexico in an average of just 96 minutes, without testing and without recognition of their due process or other rights under the US Constitution. Even with total border crossings into the US down significantly, over 10,000 immigrants were expelled back to Mexico in the weeks following the order. Taken together with administration policy before the outbreak, it seems clear that the CDC order is intended to further undermine the rights of asylum seekers. Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, commented that though the coronavirus pandemic “may warrant extraordinary measures at borders, expulsion of asylum seekers resulting in refoulement should not be among them.”

But the Trump administration hasn’t just been turning away new immigrants; it is continuing to deport detainees back to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 2,985 deportations in the first 11 days of April, a substantial decline from prior numbers but still deeply troubling given the global pandemic.

Though ICE is notoriously secretive about its operations, a review of public flight data shows that Swift Air, one of ICE’s major subcontractors for deportation flights, has continued to fly regularly from international airports near major ICE detainment centers to airports throughout Latin America, with the majority of flights headed to three national airports in Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), even amid a dramatic decline in global air travel. Though some of Swift’s air traffic may be private flights unrelated to deportation, 43 percent of ICE deportees were returned to Northern Central America in 2019, making up the vast majority of deportations when excluding Mexico’s 47 percent (deportations to Mexico occur over ground more often than by flight). 

As deportations have continued, there are now multiple confirmed cases of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases. In one instance, an immigrant, unaware he had contracted the virus, was deported from Houston to Mexico, leading to the infection of 13 others in a Nuevo Laredo shelter just south of the US-Mexican border. Ironically, the CDC order claimed “Medical experts believe that community transmission and spread of COVID–19 at asylum camps and shelters along the US border is inevitable, once community transmission begins in Mexico”; the order itself has contributed to this exact outcome. The Mexican government is now making the same mistake under US pressure, clearing its migrant shelters and sending immigrants and refugees back to Central America.

In Haiti, three deportees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, prompting 27 members of the US Congress and 164 human rights organizations to send letters asking the Trump administration to halt deportations to the beleaguered nation, and some Haitian scientists have asked the same. In fact, Haitian citizens legally visiting the US are having a harder time returning to Haiti than deportees are, as deportees aren’t being properly tested first. In Guatemala, the public health ministry has reported at least 99 people infected with COVID-19 who have been deported from the US on various flights, nearly one-fifth of all the country’s known cases. Though there are contradictory reports, Guatemala’s health minister claims that on one of these flights, the majority of deportees aboard were sick.

That flight led the Guatemalan government to temporarily suspend incoming deportation flights on March 17, and to request that the US government reform deportation protocols by testing deportees beforehand and limiting flights to 25 deportees each in order to allow for distancing. El Salvador joined in temporarily suspending deportation flights, while flights had supposedly already been stopped in Honduras due to general flight restrictions. The US did not comply with Guatemala’s requests, but Guatemala still lifted its suspension two days later and allowed deportation flights to resume — the same day the US government announced it would continue aid to Northern Central America. ICE claimed to be implementing some precautions, but some experts said they were woefully inadequate

After the Trump administration continued to send back deportees with COVID-19, the Guatemalan government suspended flights again on April 16 in what it described as a “consensual decision” with the US; the US also sent a CDC team to investigate. Only on April 24 did ICE announce it would begin testing some deportees, several months after the outbreak had been confirmed in the US. Nevertheless, Swift Air flights to Northern Central America seem to have continued even when these governments had said they were suspending them. Swift flights from ICE hubs in the US to all three nations have proceeded in the several days leading up to publication of this post.

This is due, no doubt, in part to US pressure. When Guatemala raised concerns early on, Trump responded with a memo on April 10, threatening to impose visa sanctions against any country that “denies or unreasonably delays the acceptance of aliens who are … subjects … of that country after being asked to accept those aliens” in a way that “imped[es] operations of the Department of Homeland Security necessary to respond to the ongoing pandemic …” (Though visa sanctions aiming to pressure countries on immigration policy had been imposed just twice in the quarter century between the end of the Cold War and Donald Trump’s election, Trump has used them against a total of eight different countries so far.)

Some of the countries that Trump has pressured into accepting deportees despite the risk of COVID-19 may be some of the least prepared nations in the entire Western Hemisphere to manage a pandemic. Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras all have some of the lowest testing rates in Latin America, meaning deportations may well have already contributed to an undetected spread of COVID-19. These nations also rank at the very bottom for hospital beds and medical professionals per capita. 

While the Trump administration justifies these draconian measures as necessary to protect the US from disease, the danger is obvious: the continued spread of the pandemic to places unprepared to manage it will further imperil the region, the US included. This is especially the case when ICE has used the same planes to deport immigrants and to bring US citizens back.

The mass deportation of immigrants was cruel and unnecessary long before COVID-19 struck, but in the midst of an active pandemic, the policy is not just unjust, it is also a threat to global health. As congressional leaders prepare the next COVID-19-related legislative package, legislators should support a moratorium on deportations and the release of nonviolent detainees in ICE facilities so long as the pandemic rages.

There were 232 likely ICE Air deportation flights to Latin America and Caribbean countries between February 3, 2020 and April 24, 2020, CEPR analysis shows. 

In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 267,258 individuals — 96 percent of whom were from the Latin America and Caribbean region. Though much of the media focus has been on Mexico (49.7 percent of the total) and the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (together 45.1 percent of the total), ICE deported at least one person to every country in the LAC region in 2019. Ten countries in the region accepted regular deportation flights conducted by ICE’s air operations — known as “ICE Air” — last year.

While the vast majority of deportations to Mexico take place over land, ICE Air flies tens of thousands of people across the country and across the world each year. Amid the global pandemic, which has led to countries shutting down air travel and closing borders, ICE Air continues to deport thousands of immigrants held in detention centers throughout the United States. Those facilities themselves have become hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks, meaning the US is now exporting the virus to countries throughout the region.

Despite the prevalence of ICE Air deportation flights, and the grave risk to public health that their continuation during the global pandemic presents, little is known about their frequency and destinations. However, a new analysis of flight tracker data sheds some much-needed light on the scope of ICE Air flights and the extent to which countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are affected by continued deportations. Since the Trump administration declared a national emergency on March 13, one ICE Air contractor has flown at least 72 likely deportation flights to 11 Latin America and Caribbean nations — including to Brazil and Ecuador, which are suffering the region’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, and which have both experienced an increase in deportation flights under the Trump administration.

From March 15 to April 24, ICE Air appears to have made 21 deportation flights to Guatemala; 18 to Honduras; 12 to El Salvador; six to Brazil; three each to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; and one each to Colombia and Jamaica. All likely ICE Air deportation flights since February can be seen in the interactive map below.

In 2019, researchers from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) obtained ICE flight records from 2010 to 2018 following a Freedom of Information Act request. The UWCHR analysis provided the most complete analysis of the extent of ICE Air operations, and their full dataset is available here. Their report also revealed that two private charter companies — Swift Air and Western Atlantic Airlines — conducted the majority of ICE Air deportation flights as subcontractors.

The data analyzed in this post was collected from Flight Aware, a public flight tracker database. Because both Swift and Western perform regular charter services, not all of their flights are part of ICE’s deportation system. However, the flights included in this analysis match known deportation trips, depart from airports known to be used for deportation flights, and follow routes known to be associated with the transport of ICE detainees. While it is possible some of the flights included here were not deportations, it is more likely that this data represents an underestimate of the extent of ICE Air’s operations. ICE is also known to use commercial airlines for deportations and it remains possible that additional charter companies are contracted by ICE. In fiscal year 2017 more than 85 percent of ICE Air deportations were conducted through charter services, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General.

ICE Air Deportations Continue, but Frequency Slows

In the first three months of 2020, ICE deported an average of 20,833 individuals each month — on pace for a similar annual number as in 2019. In contrast, the Washington Post reported that in the first 11 days of April 2020, ICE deported 2,985 people — less than half that rate. Indeed, the flight tracking data analyzed here shows a decrease in deportation flights beginning around March 13 — as can be seen in the table below.

Table 1. ICE Air Likely Deportation Flights, by Week

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.

The drop visible in the table above appears to result from the stoppage of Western Atlantic’s international charter flights on March 13 — when the US declared a national emergency. ICE Air’s other subcontractor, Swift Air, has continued flying. Despite growing restrictions on international air travel, Swift had almost exactly as many flights from the US to Latin America and the Caribbean in March as it did in February — though that number has decreased some in April. (In recent months, Swift-owned airplanes have made trips to an additional number of countries in the region, including Cuba, Suriname, Peru, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Belize, and Grenada; however those flights did not match up with known deportation flights and have been excluded from the analysis.)

Though much attention has been paid to recent deportation flights to Guatemala and Haiti — both countries have reported confirmed COVID-19 cases among those deported — the data reveal that many other countries are likely experiencing the same phenomenon.

In 2019, the Trump administration began ICE Air deportations to Brazil, which had previously blocked such flights. The United States relies on foreign governments to approve deportation flights, and under the leadership of Trump-ally Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil acquiesced. Flight data indicate that those flights have continued during the pandemic. Since March 13, there have been six flights conducted by Swift Air to Belo Horizonte, Brazil — the destination of previously reported deportation flights. Brazil is currently experiencing the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the region.

Some of the Swift Air flights to Brazil have first made a stop in Ecuador’s port city Guayaquil — home to perhaps the deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world. Deportations to Ecuador increased by 78 percent in 2019 compared to the year prior as, similar to the Brazilian government, Ecuador has sought to bolster relations with the Trump administration. As can be seen in the table above, likely deportation flights to Ecuador have decreased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there have still been three since March 13 — including an April 17 flight to Quito that contained at least 70 individuals, according to immigration attorneys.

Interestingly, while deportations to Mexico have continued — one recent deportee has since tested positive and spread COVID-19 to at least 13 others — the regular ICE Air flights from San Diego and the Phoenix-area to Guadalajara appear to have halted since March 16. Those flights had formed part of an agreement between Mexico and the US to deport individuals to the interior of the country.

In just the last week, Swift Air has flown 11 likely deportation flights to seven different countries: Brazil, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, as well as Central American favorites Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

ICE Air Poses a Threat at Home and Abroad

The majority of the flights analyzed departed from two airports well-known to be ICE deportation locations: Brownsville, Texas and Alexandria, Louisiana. The Alexandria ICE staging facility, which is run by the private prison company GEO Group, has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, with at least 11 employees testing positive. The plane that brought an estimated 40 confirmed COVID-19 cases to Guatemala last week departed from the Alexandria airport.

Overall, the Guatemalan government has estimated that 20 percent of the country’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are recently returned immigrants.

Table 2. Likely ICE Deportation Flights After March 13, by Departure Airport

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.
Note: The total number of flights seen here does not match the overall number of flights after March 13 because some trips included multiple stops.

Despite the obvious public health concerns, ICE has so far refused to test detainees prior to deportation — though officials have recently indicated they would begin at least partial testing. The Washington Post reported that ICE “is unlikely to administer tests to every deportee unless foreign governments make that a condition for taking people back.”

The reality is that, in the shady world of ICE Air, the public has little clue as to the extent of the transportation of detainees — not just internationally but domestically. ProPublica reported last month that one detainee was flown across the United States nine times in a matter of 10 days. That case was not unique. Public health experts have warned that ICE detention centers pose a serious health risk to those held inside — as well as to employees and surrounding communities. Because detainees are often flown across the country and are held in closely confined spaces, it is virtually impossible to adequately isolate those who have contracted COVID-19 or to ensure that those deported have not been exposed to COVID-19.

Some US municipalities have taken it upon themselves to push back on ICE Air’s deportation racket. In 2019, King County in Washington banned ICE from conducting deportation flights from its local airport — though the Trump administration has since sued the local authorities. But it appears some communities are attempting to follow suit amid the global pandemic. Local leaders in El Paso recently raised concerns over continued deportation flights after an ICE flight carrying a passenger with a confirmed case of COVID-19 passed through the municipality-run airport.

But ICE Air is big business; from 2010 to 2017, ICE spent an estimated $1 billion on the program. In 2017, the Trump administration awarded a new primary contract to Classic Air Charters — the same company used as part of the CIA’s black site rendition program during the Bush administration. The ICE contract has an expected value of more than $300 million. Already in 2020, ICE has disbursed more than $90 million under the contract. Because both Swift Air and Western Atlantic operate as subcontractors, there is no public information on the value of their contracts with the federal government. The New York Times reported in 2017 that Swift took in an estimated $15 million per year from the government. ICE Air contractors charge about $8,000 per flight hour — regardless of the number of passengers. In 2019, iAero Group and Blackstone — one of world’s largest private equity firms — purchased Swift Air, though it continues to operate under the same name.

Tracking the ICE Air Fleet

Over the last 12 weeks, it appears that ICE has used 22 unique charter planes for 232 likely deportation flights. Of those planes, 15 participated in confirmed ICE Air deportation flights between October 2018 and May 2019, the most recent data compiled by UWCHR.

Previously, flight tracking software allowed users to see all flights with the call sign “RPN” for “repatriation.” However, it appears that service is no longer accessible and that current ICE Air flights are no longer using the RPN designation. A full list of likely deportation flights since the beginning of February is available here (the data will be updated regularly). The data includes the tag numbers of the 22 planes identified in an effort to promote public awareness around ongoing deportation flights.

Of course, it remains possible that some of these flights reflect regular charter services and not ICE deportation flights. Last week, citing a local airport official, the Miami Herald reported two Swift Air flights were deportation flights to Honduras and Brazil. The official, however, later said he had been “mistaken” and told the Herald the planes had been chartered by Royal Caribbean. If you have information that one of the listed flights was not in fact an ICE Air deportation flight, or if there is a known deportation flight missing from the list, please contact the author ([email protected]).

[Data update: Since the data was collected for this analysis, two additional flights have been added to the likely ICE deportation flight database. These flights help illustrate how the data may be helpful in identifying deportation flights moving forward. On Monday, April 27, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. This is the fifth consecutive Monday in which a Swift Air flight traveled to San Pedro Sula. On Tuesday, April 28, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed toward San Salvador, El Salvador. This is the sixth consecutive Tuesday a Swift Air plane has flown to San Salvador. On the other hand, on April 27, a Swift Air plane flew to Guatemala but that trip used a flight number not previously associated with known deportation flights and is excluded from the dataset.]

Maps and visualizations created by Kevin Cashman.

There were 232 likely ICE Air deportation flights to Latin America and Caribbean countries between February 3, 2020 and April 24, 2020, CEPR analysis shows. 

In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 267,258 individuals — 96 percent of whom were from the Latin America and Caribbean region. Though much of the media focus has been on Mexico (49.7 percent of the total) and the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (together 45.1 percent of the total), ICE deported at least one person to every country in the LAC region in 2019. Ten countries in the region accepted regular deportation flights conducted by ICE’s air operations — known as “ICE Air” — last year.

While the vast majority of deportations to Mexico take place over land, ICE Air flies tens of thousands of people across the country and across the world each year. Amid the global pandemic, which has led to countries shutting down air travel and closing borders, ICE Air continues to deport thousands of immigrants held in detention centers throughout the United States. Those facilities themselves have become hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks, meaning the US is now exporting the virus to countries throughout the region.

Despite the prevalence of ICE Air deportation flights, and the grave risk to public health that their continuation during the global pandemic presents, little is known about their frequency and destinations. However, a new analysis of flight tracker data sheds some much-needed light on the scope of ICE Air flights and the extent to which countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are affected by continued deportations. Since the Trump administration declared a national emergency on March 13, one ICE Air contractor has flown at least 72 likely deportation flights to 11 Latin America and Caribbean nations — including to Brazil and Ecuador, which are suffering the region’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, and which have both experienced an increase in deportation flights under the Trump administration.

From March 15 to April 24, ICE Air appears to have made 21 deportation flights to Guatemala; 18 to Honduras; 12 to El Salvador; six to Brazil; three each to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; and one each to Colombia and Jamaica. All likely ICE Air deportation flights since February can be seen in the interactive map below.

In 2019, researchers from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) obtained ICE flight records from 2010 to 2018 following a Freedom of Information Act request. The UWCHR analysis provided the most complete analysis of the extent of ICE Air operations, and their full dataset is available here. Their report also revealed that two private charter companies — Swift Air and Western Atlantic Airlines — conducted the majority of ICE Air deportation flights as subcontractors.

The data analyzed in this post was collected from Flight Aware, a public flight tracker database. Because both Swift and Western perform regular charter services, not all of their flights are part of ICE’s deportation system. However, the flights included in this analysis match known deportation trips, depart from airports known to be used for deportation flights, and follow routes known to be associated with the transport of ICE detainees. While it is possible some of the flights included here were not deportations, it is more likely that this data represents an underestimate of the extent of ICE Air’s operations. ICE is also known to use commercial airlines for deportations and it remains possible that additional charter companies are contracted by ICE. In fiscal year 2017 more than 85 percent of ICE Air deportations were conducted through charter services, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General.

ICE Air Deportations Continue, but Frequency Slows

In the first three months of 2020, ICE deported an average of 20,833 individuals each month — on pace for a similar annual number as in 2019. In contrast, the Washington Post reported that in the first 11 days of April 2020, ICE deported 2,985 people — less than half that rate. Indeed, the flight tracking data analyzed here shows a decrease in deportation flights beginning around March 13 — as can be seen in the table below.

Table 1. ICE Air Likely Deportation Flights, by Week

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.

The drop visible in the table above appears to result from the stoppage of Western Atlantic’s international charter flights on March 13 — when the US declared a national emergency. ICE Air’s other subcontractor, Swift Air, has continued flying. Despite growing restrictions on international air travel, Swift had almost exactly as many flights from the US to Latin America and the Caribbean in March as it did in February — though that number has decreased some in April. (In recent months, Swift-owned airplanes have made trips to an additional number of countries in the region, including Cuba, Suriname, Peru, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Belize, and Grenada; however those flights did not match up with known deportation flights and have been excluded from the analysis.)

Though much attention has been paid to recent deportation flights to Guatemala and Haiti — both countries have reported confirmed COVID-19 cases among those deported — the data reveal that many other countries are likely experiencing the same phenomenon.

In 2019, the Trump administration began ICE Air deportations to Brazil, which had previously blocked such flights. The United States relies on foreign governments to approve deportation flights, and under the leadership of Trump-ally Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil acquiesced. Flight data indicate that those flights have continued during the pandemic. Since March 13, there have been six flights conducted by Swift Air to Belo Horizonte, Brazil — the destination of previously reported deportation flights. Brazil is currently experiencing the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the region.

Some of the Swift Air flights to Brazil have first made a stop in Ecuador’s port city Guayaquil — home to perhaps the deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world. Deportations to Ecuador increased by 78 percent in 2019 compared to the year prior as, similar to the Brazilian government, Ecuador has sought to bolster relations with the Trump administration. As can be seen in the table above, likely deportation flights to Ecuador have decreased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there have still been three since March 13 — including an April 17 flight to Quito that contained at least 70 individuals, according to immigration attorneys.

Interestingly, while deportations to Mexico have continued — one recent deportee has since tested positive and spread COVID-19 to at least 13 others — the regular ICE Air flights from San Diego and the Phoenix-area to Guadalajara appear to have halted since March 16. Those flights had formed part of an agreement between Mexico and the US to deport individuals to the interior of the country.

In just the last week, Swift Air has flown 11 likely deportation flights to seven different countries: Brazil, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, as well as Central American favorites Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

ICE Air Poses a Threat at Home and Abroad

The majority of the flights analyzed departed from two airports well-known to be ICE deportation locations: Brownsville, Texas and Alexandria, Louisiana. The Alexandria ICE staging facility, which is run by the private prison company GEO Group, has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, with at least 11 employees testing positive. The plane that brought an estimated 40 confirmed COVID-19 cases to Guatemala last week departed from the Alexandria airport.

Overall, the Guatemalan government has estimated that 20 percent of the country’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are recently returned immigrants.

Table 2. Likely ICE Deportation Flights After March 13, by Departure Airport

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.
Note: The total number of flights seen here does not match the overall number of flights after March 13 because some trips included multiple stops.

Despite the obvious public health concerns, ICE has so far refused to test detainees prior to deportation — though officials have recently indicated they would begin at least partial testing. The Washington Post reported that ICE “is unlikely to administer tests to every deportee unless foreign governments make that a condition for taking people back.”

The reality is that, in the shady world of ICE Air, the public has little clue as to the extent of the transportation of detainees — not just internationally but domestically. ProPublica reported last month that one detainee was flown across the United States nine times in a matter of 10 days. That case was not unique. Public health experts have warned that ICE detention centers pose a serious health risk to those held inside — as well as to employees and surrounding communities. Because detainees are often flown across the country and are held in closely confined spaces, it is virtually impossible to adequately isolate those who have contracted COVID-19 or to ensure that those deported have not been exposed to COVID-19.

Some US municipalities have taken it upon themselves to push back on ICE Air’s deportation racket. In 2019, King County in Washington banned ICE from conducting deportation flights from its local airport — though the Trump administration has since sued the local authorities. But it appears some communities are attempting to follow suit amid the global pandemic. Local leaders in El Paso recently raised concerns over continued deportation flights after an ICE flight carrying a passenger with a confirmed case of COVID-19 passed through the municipality-run airport.

But ICE Air is big business; from 2010 to 2017, ICE spent an estimated $1 billion on the program. In 2017, the Trump administration awarded a new primary contract to Classic Air Charters — the same company used as part of the CIA’s black site rendition program during the Bush administration. The ICE contract has an expected value of more than $300 million. Already in 2020, ICE has disbursed more than $90 million under the contract. Because both Swift Air and Western Atlantic operate as subcontractors, there is no public information on the value of their contracts with the federal government. The New York Times reported in 2017 that Swift took in an estimated $15 million per year from the government. ICE Air contractors charge about $8,000 per flight hour — regardless of the number of passengers. In 2019, iAero Group and Blackstone — one of world’s largest private equity firms — purchased Swift Air, though it continues to operate under the same name.

Tracking the ICE Air Fleet

Over the last 12 weeks, it appears that ICE has used 22 unique charter planes for 232 likely deportation flights. Of those planes, 15 participated in confirmed ICE Air deportation flights between October 2018 and May 2019, the most recent data compiled by UWCHR.

Previously, flight tracking software allowed users to see all flights with the call sign “RPN” for “repatriation.” However, it appears that service is no longer accessible and that current ICE Air flights are no longer using the RPN designation. A full list of likely deportation flights since the beginning of February is available here (the data will be updated regularly). The data includes the tag numbers of the 22 planes identified in an effort to promote public awareness around ongoing deportation flights.

Of course, it remains possible that some of these flights reflect regular charter services and not ICE deportation flights. Last week, citing a local airport official, the Miami Herald reported two Swift Air flights were deportation flights to Honduras and Brazil. The official, however, later said he had been “mistaken” and told the Herald the planes had been chartered by Royal Caribbean. If you have information that one of the listed flights was not in fact an ICE Air deportation flight, or if there is a known deportation flight missing from the list, please contact the author ([email protected]).

[Data update: Since the data was collected for this analysis, two additional flights have been added to the likely ICE deportation flight database. These flights help illustrate how the data may be helpful in identifying deportation flights moving forward. On Monday, April 27, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. This is the fifth consecutive Monday in which a Swift Air flight traveled to San Pedro Sula. On Tuesday, April 28, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed toward San Salvador, El Salvador. This is the sixth consecutive Tuesday a Swift Air plane has flown to San Salvador. On the other hand, on April 27, a Swift Air plane flew to Guatemala but that trip used a flight number not previously associated with known deportation flights and is excluded from the dataset.]

Maps and visualizations created by Kevin Cashman.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand around the world, Latin America is expected to become one of the hardest-hit regions. One of the biggest obstacles countries face in responding to the pandemic is that, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about 40 percent of all employment in the Americas in 2019 was informal. Many of these workers depend on day-to-day activities just to survive, and complying with stay-at-home orders is often a life-or-death decision. This indicates a worrying outlook for street vendors, domestic workers, and even small business owners. The ILO notes that there has been growth in the informal sector in the last few years, rendering the region even more susceptible to large economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting a 5.2 percentage point fall in the region’s GDP in 2020 as a result of the ongoing crisis. 

Government responses must be universal

While most governments in the region have enforced some level of stay-at-home order, these policies highlight the fragile nature of many lives in Latin America and how they will be strained further due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The prevalence of informal employment points to the need for governments to enact universal policies that ensure access to assistance and health care for all those affected. 

Those in the informal economy are at particular risk during the pandemic. As can be seen in the figure below, the ILO notes that the Americas has the highest percentage of workers employed in “at-risk” sectors, while more than 30 percent of Latin Americans are not covered by governments’ social protection measures. 

Because of the high rate of unregistered businesses and informal workers, only a small percentage of aid aimed at formal sectors is likely to reach these employers, their workers, and their employees’ families. In responding to the pandemic, governments must design policy responses with informality at the forefront. Food distributions, cash payouts, and access to public services must be accessible to all — even those not formally employed. Some governments have acknowledged this reality. The Colombian and Brazilian governments have both proposed $40 monthly payouts, though this is unlikely to adequately support informal workers throughout the crisis. Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are undoubtedly among the hardest hit during this outbreak. 60% of the nearly 1.8 millions Venezuelans in Colombia don’t have regular status. This suggests that a staggering number of Venezuelan migrants work in the informal sector and will need to be taken into consideration when drafting more inclusive policies.

An increase in inequality calls for formalizing more workers

Unfortunately, with an expected deep economic downturn, Latin America risks seeing a steep increase in inequality. According to a report published by Oxfam, there are currently 162 million people living on $5.50 a day in Latin America and the Caribbean, and even a 5 percent contraction in income means 2.6 million people will fall under the poverty line. In its report Oxfam predicts in the most extreme case of a 20 percent contraction, there could be an increase in the number of those in poverty ranging from 13.1 million to 54.3 million. Although some of these people might work in the formal economy (e.g., for factories), the reality is that the crisis could push many more into the informal economy, exacerbating inequality in the region. 

Projected Effects of Drops in Income to the Poor in Latin America and the Carribean

(the term ¨hit¨ designates a contraction in income)

Number of Poor (million)

Additional Poor (million)

Aggregated

Status quo

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

Under $1.90 a Day

25.3

27.9

30.8

38.5

2.6

5.5

13.1

Under $3.20 a Day

66.4

72.8

80.2

98.6

6.4

13.8

32.1

Under $5.50 a Day

162.0

174.6

187.8

216.3

12.5

25.8

54.3

Source: Oxfam

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder stated that after this crisis unfolds, new systems must be “safer, fairer and more sustainable.” This must include a plan to make formal economies more inclusive and social protections more extensive. Informal labor markets show the unfortunate reality of many in Latin America, and the current crisis should be an opportunity for government officials to recognize the importance of formalizing these workers in the economy. Decision-makers must however, do so in a way that will not expand pre-existing inequalities but rather offer a platform to reduce the economic gap in the region.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand around the world, Latin America is expected to become one of the hardest-hit regions. One of the biggest obstacles countries face in responding to the pandemic is that, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about 40 percent of all employment in the Americas in 2019 was informal. Many of these workers depend on day-to-day activities just to survive, and complying with stay-at-home orders is often a life-or-death decision. This indicates a worrying outlook for street vendors, domestic workers, and even small business owners. The ILO notes that there has been growth in the informal sector in the last few years, rendering the region even more susceptible to large economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting a 5.2 percentage point fall in the region’s GDP in 2020 as a result of the ongoing crisis. 

Government responses must be universal

While most governments in the region have enforced some level of stay-at-home order, these policies highlight the fragile nature of many lives in Latin America and how they will be strained further due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The prevalence of informal employment points to the need for governments to enact universal policies that ensure access to assistance and health care for all those affected. 

Those in the informal economy are at particular risk during the pandemic. As can be seen in the figure below, the ILO notes that the Americas has the highest percentage of workers employed in “at-risk” sectors, while more than 30 percent of Latin Americans are not covered by governments’ social protection measures. 

Because of the high rate of unregistered businesses and informal workers, only a small percentage of aid aimed at formal sectors is likely to reach these employers, their workers, and their employees’ families. In responding to the pandemic, governments must design policy responses with informality at the forefront. Food distributions, cash payouts, and access to public services must be accessible to all — even those not formally employed. Some governments have acknowledged this reality. The Colombian and Brazilian governments have both proposed $40 monthly payouts, though this is unlikely to adequately support informal workers throughout the crisis. Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are undoubtedly among the hardest hit during this outbreak. 60% of the nearly 1.8 millions Venezuelans in Colombia don’t have regular status. This suggests that a staggering number of Venezuelan migrants work in the informal sector and will need to be taken into consideration when drafting more inclusive policies.

An increase in inequality calls for formalizing more workers

Unfortunately, with an expected deep economic downturn, Latin America risks seeing a steep increase in inequality. According to a report published by Oxfam, there are currently 162 million people living on $5.50 a day in Latin America and the Caribbean, and even a 5 percent contraction in income means 2.6 million people will fall under the poverty line. In its report Oxfam predicts in the most extreme case of a 20 percent contraction, there could be an increase in the number of those in poverty ranging from 13.1 million to 54.3 million. Although some of these people might work in the formal economy (e.g., for factories), the reality is that the crisis could push many more into the informal economy, exacerbating inequality in the region. 

Projected Effects of Drops in Income to the Poor in Latin America and the Carribean

(the term ¨hit¨ designates a contraction in income)

Number of Poor (million)

Additional Poor (million)

Aggregated

Status quo

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

Under $1.90 a Day

25.3

27.9

30.8

38.5

2.6

5.5

13.1

Under $3.20 a Day

66.4

72.8

80.2

98.6

6.4

13.8

32.1

Under $5.50 a Day

162.0

174.6

187.8

216.3

12.5

25.8

54.3

Source: Oxfam

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder stated that after this crisis unfolds, new systems must be “safer, fairer and more sustainable.” This must include a plan to make formal economies more inclusive and social protections more extensive. Informal labor markets show the unfortunate reality of many in Latin America, and the current crisis should be an opportunity for government officials to recognize the importance of formalizing these workers in the economy. Decision-makers must however, do so in a way that will not expand pre-existing inequalities but rather offer a platform to reduce the economic gap in the region.

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