The Americas today account for only some ten percent of the world’s internally displaced persons— 2 to 2.5 of a total of 20 to 25 million— yet the continent has experienced some of the worst cases of displacement as well as some of the most successful remedial efforts.
As in Europe, Asia and Africa, civil war has been the preeminent cause of internal displacement in the Americas. In the 1980s civil wars in Central America displaced more than a million people in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, and in Peru, a virulent Maoist insurgency and government counter-insurgency displaced some 600,000 people. In Haiti political turmoil in the late 1980s and early 1990s uprooted some 250,000. By the end of the 1990s, however, these figures had fallen dramatically. In Peru, since the end of the Shining Path insurgency, the number of internally displaced has declined to some 70,000. With the reestablishment of peace in Central America, no more than a few thousand remain displaced there. Even in Haiti, despite continuing deep poverty and political uncertainty, internal displacement is no longer a problem. And the Chiapas region of Mexico counts some 16,000 displaced.
Today it is Colombia that is the focus of the problem in the Americas, and there it is virulent. Colombia now counts an estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons, making it the country with the third largest displaced population in the world after Sudan and Angola. Each day, the numbers grow, with more and more people forced from their homes as paramilitary groups, government troops and guerrilla forces battle for control of the country.
But whether in Central America or Peru in the 1980s and early 1990s, or today in Colombia, internal displacement in the Americas has pronounced features that distinguish it from other parts of the world. A look at these, and at the at times innovative solutiosn devised by the peoples and governments of the region, may be helpful not just to those working on problems of forced displacement in the Americas but also in other parts of the world.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.